Demands on Life Sciences

by RaeAnne Marsh

Paul Keim, Ph.D., a Regents’ Professor of Biological Sciences, executive director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at NAU and the Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology; photo courtesy of Northern Arizona University

On January 13 of this year, I was in San Francisco with thousands of life science entrepreneurs and investors for J.P. Morgan Healthcare Week. Companies were making their pitches, investors were scoping out investment opportunities and the sidewalks were filled with people moving from in-person meeting to meeting. One week later, the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was reported in Washington State. Today, the U.S. and the world are in the midst of a global pandemic. In response, the life science industry, in Arizona and across the world, is working across the health innovation spectrum to develop new tests, treatments and vaccines as well as to deliver the medical devices that our healthcare teams are using to help infected patients. Investor meetings are now virtual, but the work is continuing in labs, on factory floors and within our hospitals.

Many companies have shifted their activities to meet an ever-growing need. The FDA is approving emergency use authorizations (EUAs) to speed the development of diagnostic tests that help care teams determine how best to treat a patient and antibody tests that will help public health officials and government leaders determine when and how to ease social distancing guidelines without creating new waves of disease outbreaks. Still others have ceased normal operations to refocus on producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and first responders or desperately needed medicines and ventilators. Across Arizona’s life science community, educators, researchers and companies are answering the call for “all hands on deck.”

Arizona’s life science sector spans a continuum from discovery to development to delivery. This means that we are actively engaged in a wide range of activities during the current health emergency. In many ways, the healthcare value chain is unique. In many industries, there is a clear line of sight across a B2B or B2C relationship. In healthcare, a medical professional prescribes, a pharmacy or healthcare facility provides the product to the patient, and a network of supply chain providers acquire the products on behalf of the government or private insurers who have the responsibility for managing the financial end of the transaction for the people they insure. It’s a complex system at best, and even more complicated today as governments and hospitals are also competing for precious supplies as demand is rising to unanticipated levels in “hot spots” across the country.

Innovations for heath are in demand globally, and manufactured here in Arizona and around the world. Global hot spots during the pandemic have played a significant role in the shortages we read about in the news. For instance, China and Italy are major producers of the special swabs that are needed for diagnostic tests. When they locked down, a major source of supply was cut off, making it harder for test kits to be deployed. This is just one example. There are many more, including drugs and medical devices that are needed to treat critically ill patients.

FABRIC in Tempe pivots from being a fashion design incubator to a designer and supplier of PPE; photo by Xposed Capture, courtesy of FABRIC

We are also seeing rapid rates of adoption of medical technologies that enable remote patient care. Hospitals were some of the first to adopt telemedicine, but adoption was slower in many physician practices due to spotty and low reimbursement rates for the providers. In today’s socially distanced world, these challenges are being addressed. The solutions are not yet where they need to be, but after Arizona and the world emerges from this current state of “business unusual,” we will likely see telemedicine play a much bigger role in medicine’s “new normal.”

Here’s an interesting fact to contemplate as we look to the future. In September of 2019, the three the lowest rankings out of the 25 industries ranked in Gallup’s public opinion poll were the Healthcare industry, the Federal Government, and worst of all, the Pharmaceutical industry. I wonder what these rankings will look like in September 2020.

This is one part of the June 2020 cover story on industry impact of COVID-19. To see the full story, click here.

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