How COVID-19 has supersized the life sciences industry

scientist in commercial facility

There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to highlight the critical demand for life sciences operations, both internationally and locally. How has COVID-19 impacted the life sciences sector, and how has life sciences risen to the challenge?

Since coronavirus was first identified, the life sciences industry has played a crucial role in safeguarding public health and supporting disease management, from prevention (manufacturing personal protective equipment and hand sanitisers), to diagnosis (developing antibody tests and swab testing kits), to treatment (ventilators), to the discovery and rollout of vaccines. Let’s look at how COVID-19 has impacted the life sciences sector, and how life sciences has risen to the occasion – proving itself to be a highly resilient and innovative industry.


What exactly is life sciences?

Life sciences is an umbrella term which refers to companies, businesses and research institutions dedicated to improving the lives of organisms. It incorporates various branches, including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices, nutraceuticals, food processing, neuroscience, and biophysics. Any aspect of science that involves the research and improvement of human, plant or animal life may be classed as life sciences, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on endeavours related to human life.


The initial impact of COVID-19

Like many other sectors, life sciences was forced to scramble in response to the rapid global spread of coronavirus; however, unlike most others, the life sciences industry faced sudden and enormous pressure to deliver life-saving solutions to the crisis. Predictive modelling suggests that 28 million operations were cancelled or postponed across the globe during the first 12 weeks of the pandemic. Thousands of clinical trials were suddenly brought to a halt. Gaping holes in supply chains were exposed, as governments and healthcare organisations grappled with shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), drugs, and medical devices such as ventilators. Rapid change was required: old ways were thrown out the window and new technologies, methods and mindsets needed to be urgently embraced to meet the unprecedented demands of an unfamiliar new world. 

Now, more than a year on from the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the life sciences industry is in quite a different shape, having shown remarkable resilience and agility. What has changed and what has enabled this transformation?

worker quality control checks PPE mask production line

Life sciences industry embraces technology

In the past year, the life sciences industry has transitioned from a somewhat technologically averse and siloed sector to a highly collaborative, digitally agile space. Here are some ways the industry has leveraged technology to deliver important outcomes in a COVID-19 landscape.

Telemedicine: COVID-19 has been the catalyst for widespread adoption of telemedicine, where medical consultation takes place without a physical meeting between doctor and patient. Forced to adopt this method during the initial ‘lockdown’ phase of the pandemic, the industry has realised the benefits of this model and continues to leverage this technology. In Australia, telemedicine accounted for 25 per cent of all consultations in the past year, clearly indicating that there is a strong future for this new model.

Remote patient monitoring solutions:  A longer-gestating change has been the progressive development of the ‘healthcare everywhere’ concept. Technologies spanning wearables, apps, sensors, and home devices have been employed at scale and are now the new normal, enabling connected care regardless of location.

Data moves to cloud: Sudden requirements to work and collaborate remotely have driven the life sciences industry to rapidly move data and applications to the cloud. Previously, a large proportion of data within the industry existed in siloed platforms, on aging legacy systems. In the COVID-19 landscape, this doesn’t cut it: cutting-edge information technology and a connected healthcare ecosystem has been crucial to effectively share information. According to International Data Corporation (IDC)’s findings, among 14 business-critical applications for life sciences companies across the globe, two thirds are already deployed in the cloud, with that figure expected to near 90 per cent by 2022.

Growth of decentralised trials: Since the pandemic began, approximately three quarters of clinical trials around the world have adopted a hybrid decentralised approach. Regulators have worked with the life sciences industry to speedily revise protocols and facilitate progress of this model, which is key to ensuring patient safety while driving business and research continuity.

large scale vaccine production facility

Record-breaking vaccine development

Another area where the life sciences industry has shone has been in the rapid development of lifesaving vaccines. Ordinarily, the laboratory testing, human trials, and various rounds of scientific, commercial and regulatory approvals required to get a drug to market span an average of 12 years. The unprecedented speed at which pharmaceutical companies have managed to develop vaccines for COVID-19 is remarkable: a testament to the power of collaboration by researchers, universities, and governments.


Supply chain improvements

Initially, the pandemic exposed a lack of preparedness by governments and healthcare organisations, as supply chains struggled to cope with the sudden high demand of medical supplies, equipment and drugs. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, analytics and surveillance techniques have been leveraged to enable ‘thinking’ supply chains, which have the ability to monitor demand and identify bottlenecks. This is still a work in progress: many supply chains are currently stretched to their limits in the rollout of vaccines. However, with millions of people being vaccinated every day, it’s evident that most of the world has successfully established a robust distribution method, indicating that there have been vast improvements in supply chain management since the pandemic’s onset.


Australian life sciences stronger than ever 

The life sciences industry is one of Australia’s fastest growing economic contributors, thanks in part to global collaborations on a scale never seen before. A prime example of this is CSL Limited, a home-grown biotech company, which following the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines became the most valuable company on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in 2020 – and in doing so, was responsible for a significant turning point for the Australian economy, which has traditionally depended upon finance and mining. Furthermore, the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) has grown to $20 billion, marking a dramatic increase in public funding for the sector. In conjunction with these milestones, 61 per cent of life sciences employers intend to increase their permanent staff levels in the coming year, indicating continued growth. 


What does the future hold?

Coronavirus has been a trial by fire for the life sciences industry, reshaping it in profound and permanent ways. As the pandemic enters its second year, the industry has a long and unpredictable road ahead. With vaccines currently being deployed around the world, issues in supply chain management and regulation of medical devices will be sure to continue challenging the sector. Pressures from rapid expansion and drastic change within the industry will continue to be felt. Future demands will require collaboration, digital resilience, and agile thinking. But if the past year is any indication, the life sciences industry has these qualities in spades, and is well equipped for the challenges ahead.