Pharmaceutical industry, the five lessons of the Covid-19 crisis

The pharmaceutical industry will not come out of the Covid crisis quite the same. Overview of what has already changed or should change rapidly.

♦ A therapeutic revolution

This is one of the good news about the pandemic. “For years, the pharmaceutical industry has been criticized for not innovating enough, or only incrementally. But the arrival of messenger RNA technology, successfully developed by BioNTech and Moderna, has proven the opposite and we are undoubtedly at the dawn of a scientific revolution ”, underlines Pierre-Yves Geoffard, professor at the Paris School of Economics.

→ READ. With the Covid-19, the French “biotechs” abound in projects

Unlike conventional vaccines, it is not a question of introducing into the body an antigen made from the virus, but of injecting the genetic code of this antigen so that the cells manufacture it, hence the term messenger RNA.

The research had been carried out for years, but had never gone beyond the early stages of testing. “With this pandemic, the billions of public money granted to laboratories made it possible to achieve very quickly”, notes Nathalie Coutinet, health economist. The use of messenger RNA is now being discussed to fight against cardiac pathologies, cancers or even HIV.

♦ The consecration of biotechs

The pharmaceutical industry is facing a major upheaval with the arrival of drugs made from biotechnologies, more difficult and more expensive to develop than treatments made from chemical synthesis.

The new champions are therefore now biotechs, young companies often from the academic world. Unknown before the pandemic, the American Moderna and the German BioNTech were founded respectively by a Harvard biologist and by three doctors. The large laboratories have gradually outsourced their research, to entrust them to these biotechs which they sometimes buy back very expensive afterwards. A strong trend which will continue and probably increase. “We need the speed of the biotechs and they need our skills. This partnership is not new, but it is the first time that it has been done on such a large scale ”, says Jean-François Brochard, the boss of Roche France.

The « big pharma » innovate less, of course, but retain an industrial capacity which makes them essential for mass production, even if they have ceded many factories to subcontractors. They are also the only ones with the necessary means to carry out clinical trials on tens of thousands of people in a few weeks.

With the assurance of winning a lot of money if successful. Thanks to its production of the BioNTech vaccine, Pfizer expects 21 billion euros in additional sales in 2021, compared to the 35 billion euros generated by the entire group in 2020. Moderna, the biotech led by the French Stéphane Bancel, foresees 15 billion euros of income this year, whereas she had never made money.

♦ The acceleration of procedures

It takes an average of ten years to develop a vaccine, from research to manufacturing and marketing. It took about ten months this time. A record. The drug agencies have also worked hard.

→ INVESTIGATION. Covid-19: from production to injection, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine route

“The authorization procedures have accelerated, explains Jean-François Brochard. So far, the work has been done sequentially. There were clinical trials, then the submission of files to health authorities. There, everything was done in parallel, in order to be more efficient, with the same security requirements. ” According to him, ” it seems difficult that we go back completely ». It would be another revolution.

♦ The French fiasco

“The Germans BioNTech and CureVac have received aid from their government. In France, Valneva has not found money to finance the development of its vaccine candidate, despite the presence of BPI in its capital. It is appalling ”says economist Pierre-Yves Geoffard.

Difficult, in fact, not to ask questions about the derailment of hexagonal vaccine research, despite its two flagships, the Pasteur Institute and Sanofi. The world number one in vaccines is regularly accused of not having played enough the card of French biotechs, preferring to tap into the American pool.

The evil is deeper, as recalled by the Economic Analysis Council (CAE), in a report published in January. Appropriations for public research are two times lower in France than in Germany and decreased by 28% between 2011 and 2018, when they increased respectively by 11% across the Rhine and by 16% in the United Kingdom.

Private funding is not up to par either. “In France, there is a lot of money to invest, but not enough in health, a sector considered too risky by investors », regrets Franck Mouthon, president of France Biotech, the sector association. According to him, the crisis has also served to reveal weaknesses. “ It has repositioned health as an essential strategic sector and the first signals have been given within the framework of the recovery plan, in particular as regards the relocation of innovative activities ”, says Marie Humblot Ferrero, associate director at the international strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

♦ More collaboration between manufacturers

The Covid-19 crisis has also shown the capacity of the sector to mobilize. “It broke down barriers and made it possible to build bridges between competing manufacturers”, Judge Frédéric Collet, president of Leem, the employers’ organization in the sector, which heads the French subsidiary of the Swiss giant Novartis. Sanofi will thus produce vaccines for BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson this summer. Novartis will do the same with BioNTech.

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The global drug market

The drug sales continue to climb. They reached 900 billion euros worldwide in 2020, against 530 billion euros in 2010.

The The United States is still by far the largest drug market (40%) ahead of China (11%), Japan (7%), Germany (4%) and France (3%). India now ranks 10e place, with 2% of the market.

L’oncologists (fight against cancer) alone accounts for 14.5% of treatments, ahead of diabetes (9.5%) and immunology (9.3%).

France was the leading producer of medicines in Europe in 2010. It fell to fourth place, with 270 industrial sites. The hindsight is the same for clinical trials.

Sources : Iqvia, Leem

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