At the beginning of 2020, we certainly did not expect to be facing the outbreak of COVID-19. However, despite the catastrophic impact the pandemic has had on the global economy and public health, the resilience of the life sciences industry has never been more profound. As we look ahead to 2021, we continue to face a high level of uncertainty about the pandemic and economic recovery, but there is a renewed sense of opportunity for our industry and patients. I expect we will emerge from 2020 stronger than ever before.
In less than 12 months, the life sciences industry developed two leading candidates for a COVID-19 vaccine. This success and record-breaking speed instilled greater confidence in our industry, further demonstrating its value to investors, patients, and the healthcare system as the entity that will solve the world’s greatest unmet medical needs. I expect this to have a lasting impact on biotech IPO valuations in 2021 as more investors continue to recognize this critical role.
In Massachusetts, we saw double the number of biotech IPOs in 2020 compared to 2019. I predict the IPOs from Massachusetts biotech companies will continue to be successful as our industry doubles down on efforts to address some of the toughest medical challenges in the world, but we must also consider how many of these investors are in it for the long-haul. On Episode 4 of MassBio’s State of Possible Podcast, Jeremy Levin, Chairman & CEO, Ovid Therapeutics points out that when the market rises a host of new investors will come in, but the minute there is an issue they are the first to walk away. After all, biotech funding is not for the risk-averse.
COVID-19 Vaccine Pipeline
Despite the vaccine frontrunners who have already begun distributing COVID-19 vaccines or expected to do so by year’s end, there will still be a market for the numerous candidates still in development. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently stated that all Americans could be vaccinated by spring 2021, but developing countries likely will not receive enough vaccine doses until 2023 or 2024. No one or even two companies can produce enough vaccines to inoculate the global population in one year, so I expect there will continue to be a growing market for COVID-19 vaccines. It’s also possible that certain vaccines will work for certain populations, requiring more options. And, given the speed at which these vaccines have been developed, long-term immunity remains uncertain, creating market potential for booster shots.
The Future of Vaccine Investment
COVID-19 is not and will not be the last pandemic, but I hope it has revitalized the importance of vaccine investment. The public is more aware of the value of vaccines than ever before, which could result in increased interest and demand for vaccine research in other disease areas and viruses. Both leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates rely on mRNA technology, which hasn’t been used for vaccines before and have reported efficacy of roughly 95%. This will likely evolve the role of mRNA in vaccine development moving forward.
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
One of the more positive outcomes I expect from this pandemic is a long overdue push to embrace and improve equity, diversity, and inclusion (ED&I) in our industry and across the country. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected minority populations, spotlighting health inequities that have plagued the healthcare system for decades. I expect more companies will react to this and work to rebuild trust with these populations by improving access to quality healthcare, diversifying clinical trials, and creating clear pathways for employees from diverse backgrounds in the life sciences to reach leadership positions. This year, MassBio expanded its ED&I initiative and we look forward to working with our vast membership in 2021 and beyond to create lasting change in the life sciences.
This was one of the most disruptive years we’ve ever seen, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and science will lead us toward it. As the biopharma industry continues to innovate in incredible ways, we must embrace the success that has come out of this pandemic and learn from our mistakes. There is a real opportunity to build biomanufacturing facilities next year and into the future so we can capitalize on the potential ahead and mitigate future supply chain disruptions. Through this, we can help sustain the legacy of the life sciences and look forward to the next five years, which, without a doubt, will be greater than the last five. 2021 will not be without its challenges, but the future for patients and our industry is brighter than we could have ever imagined.