Paul Hudson is the CEO of Sanofi. The French pharmaceutical company has two Covid-19 vaccines under development — one with GlaxoSmithKline, the other with Translate Bio for an mRNA vaccine. It's also manufacturing vaccine doses for competitors Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
As we enter the one-year anniversary of initial lockdowns across the globe, it is clear the Covid-19 pandemic is still lingering on and here to stay.
So far, the virus has killed over 2.5 million people worldwide and infected millions more. While vaccines bring us hope, we are facing new challenges as different variants spread around the world that question the efficacy of currently approved vaccines. As the virus mutates, there's the realization that Covid-19 could move from pandemic to endemic, and this will become an ever-present disease that will stay with us for the foreseeable future. However, we now know how we can manage it.
We need to adjust our thinking from when the virus will disappear to learning how to live with it so it can become much less of a threat. Rather than searching for the light at the end of the tunnel, how do we successfully navigate the road ahead? It won't be easy, but we can do this through variant preparedness, continued genomic surveillance, data mining and analytics, and purpose-driven collaboration.
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First, we should operate under the assumption that Covid-19 is not going to disappear. While that thought can be unsettling, it's a reminder we need to be prepared for ongoing boosters to prevent new variants, such as the UK (B.1.1.7), South African (B.1.351), Brazilian (P.1) or a new variant altogether, from circulating and taking more lives.
Initial Covid-19 vaccines have already proven to be successful in limiting disease spread, but there is fear that if we don't vaccinate fast enough, we will not be able to keep up with the pace of virus mutations and variants could gain a foothold in the community and cause new outbreaks. There is still research being done on how current vaccines protect against variants and if yearly vaccination might be necessary, similar to the influenza virus.
Our first priority is to get everyone vaccinated across the globe. We must simultaneously develop boosters to address mutations as necessary. Several manufacturers with vaccines on the market are already assessing yearly booster shots to maintain immunity and address variants after the initial two doses are administered.
As we do with the influenza virus, we have to consider the potential need for multi-variant vaccines. Covid-19 has been mutating all along, and while we have identified several key strains, there are hypotheses that viral mutations that provide an advantage in transmission may eventually escape the protection of naturally acquired or vaccine-induced immunity. But this also highlights the importance of multiple vaccine makers, as those still in clinical development can adjust their vaccines to ensure their candidates can protect against important new mutations.
To better track variants, governments and health-care companies need to invest in genomic surveillance infrastructure by partnering with tech companies to identify mutations of the virus. Variants are inevitable, but we must have this infrastructure in place to quickly identify mutations and to disseminate this data globally to move rapidly to control the spread.
The United Kingdom has become a world leader in viral sequencing, logging nearly 4 million viral samples. Thanks to the country's regular testing and genome-sequencing facilities, they were able to spot the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. To ensure this data is widely available, the U.K. is placing its genomes in the global library's Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data. As of Jan. 29, the country has submitted 44% of the genomes in the library.
Data mining and analytics
While genomic testing infrastructure is necessary to identify new mutations, those efforts will be minimal if we do not use data and analytics for our healthcare and vaccine systems. Through this, we can improve our logistics, both in vaccine distribution and administration, as well as track and overcome hot spots rapidly.
Analytics companies and startups are coming forward using health data mining to anticipate the next Covid-19 hotspots so that health systems can prepare not only for vaccines but potentially make decisions on sending advice to high-risk groups, anticipate re-introduction of non-pharmaceutical interventions, ensure adequate supply of PPE, medicines and health equipment.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic used data to analyze keywords from Google Trends, including "face mask," "Lysol," and "testing center." They found these searches can identify a new hot spot or outbreak up to 16 days before a rise in cases were first reported. This information can allow governments to monitor Google searches to better track the spread digitally and then use this to strategically distribute PPE supplies or redirect funding to areas who need it most – before the cases even begin to spike.
Collaboration throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has occurred at unprecedented levels. Businesses, governments and regulators have moved at incredible speed to approve needed therapies and vaccines for patients. Previous competitors are now working together to put the needs of patients and the global population first. However, to enact meaningful change, these actions must be purpose driven.
We are partnering with traditional competitors to manufacture their vaccines, so we can get more doses into patients' arms more quickly. We didn't hesitate to help, and other companies should jump in and help as well. We must step up with purpose-driven action and put "competition" aside to do what is best for humanity.
Unless we vow to overhaul our old systems, we risk returning to these outdated ways. Other large corporations outside of pharma can help too. Take, for example, companies like Walmart, Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon which are working with local governments and healthcare providers in the U.S. to increase vaccine distribution. Some companies, such as CVS, Walgreens and others have experience serving hundreds of thousands of customers on any given day, giving them the expertise needed to enable vaccinators to inoculate patients quickly and efficiently.
The pandemic is constantly changing the way we operate. As we learn to live with Covid-19, we must accelerate our pace and find novel ways to collaborate. Most importantly, we must move forward with purpose, working together with traditional competitors and non-traditional partners to do what is right.