BEIJING – The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily impacted partnerships and investment opportunities, but it has also prompted other forms of collaboration within the biotech community and helped R&D-driven companies learn valuable lessons.

“The international biopharmas who were planning Q1 licensing or other partnering discussions with companies in China are disrupted,” Helen Chen, managing director and head of China and Asia Life Sciences at L.E.K. Consulting, told BioWorld.

A number of key industry forums scheduled for spring, such as the China Healthcare Investment Conference and Healthcare Capital & Connections Summit and ChinaBio in Shanghai, ChinaFocus@Paris in conjunction with Bio-Europe, and BioAsia in Japan, have been postponed or canceled outright.

That said, collaborations are taking shape in other forms, especially in China. Interactions have turned virtual and are thriving.

“The WeChat platform with the informal industry communities setting up programs and webinars is definitely a modern day phenomenon,” Chen said. “The level of cooperation, sharing and exchanging of data, and the overall industry coming together to discuss, debate and find solutions to address this epidemic has been unprecedented.”

WeChat is an instant messaging application that has more than 1 billion active users in China. Biotech companies, research institutes and health care media in China have been using that platform to organize webinars on various topics almost on a daily basis, such as different R&D approaches to developing a treatment for COVID-19 or the measures to support ongoing clinical trials. The webinars easily drew a bigger audience and provided a more efficient way for discussions.

Helen Chen, managing director and head of China and Asia Life Sciences, L.E.K. Consulting

Eventually, Chen said, she believes this COVID-19 episode could emerge as an energizing factor that will positively impact China’s biotech community.

Despite a decline in global GDP forecasts, which could result in retrenchment and reduced interests in exploring new opportunities, Chen said the reasons that international biotechs are coming to China – to find partners for their innovation, to source innovation or to find investors – should continue to hold up.

It remains to be seen how other therapeutic areas have been impacted, but collaboration efforts remain active for the COVID-19 pandemic, with multinational and Chinese biotech companies working closely in several programs.

Chengdu-based Clover Biopharmaceuticals Inc. and Glaxosmithkline plc. are working on a recombinant subunit-trimer vaccine, while Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology Co. Ltd. are developing INO-4800. Biontech AG and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. have BNT-162, and Vir Biotechnology Inc. and Wuxi Biologics are collaborating on human monoclonal antibodies targeting COVID-19.

Implications for China’s R&D

The pandemic has given valuable lessons to Chinese biotech players to remind them of the importance of developing strong R&D capabilities at home, Xiaobin Wu, Beigene’s president and general manager of China, told BioWorld.

“When there is an epidemic, we need to have strong R&D capability and we cannot rely on others. The potential treatments are still imported drugs,” he said.

Recommended by the Chinese authorities as potential treatments for COVID-19, remdesivir and favipiravir were developed by Gilead Sciences Inc. and Fujifilm Holdings Corp., respectively.

“Our biotech industry must flourish. Although we stress the need for joint efforts by the international community, there are still some barriers,” Wu said. “No matter how big of an economy you are, a pandemic can knock you down.”

The pandemic also shone light on other therapeutic areas for Chinese biotech companies, which mostly eye oncology. It could warn them of a homogeneous domestic market.

“Chinese biotechs have been around for only two decades, or one decade in any meaningful way,” LEK’s Chen said. “A majority of the investments have gone into oncology.”

Although more drugs developed by multinational drugmakers are in clinical trials or being tested for COVID-19, Chen said she believes that differential should be not considered a reflection of R&D capabilities, but of R&D investment.

Antiviral drugs and vaccines now have attracted more attention from biotech companies in China.

“Pharmaceutical innovation cannot be done only when it is needed, and it takes time to make achievements,” Xie Yuli, CEO of Wigen Biomedicine Technology (Shanghai) Co. Ltd., told BioWorld. “The Chinese government should provide long-term support to antiviral drug R&D.”

His call seemed to have been addressed by authorities, who supported Cansino Biologics Inc. to develop its vaccine candidate, Ad5-nCoV, and advance it to phase I testing this week.

But for now, Chinese pharma players can focus on leveraging the resources they already have to help fight the coronavirus, experts said.

“We are repurposing drugs, and we have traditional Chinese medicine that now plays a part in fighting COVID-19,” Song Ruilin, executive president of the China Pharmaceutical Innovation and Research Development Association (PhIRDA), told BioWorld.

Although a drug has yet to emerge that has clearly proved efficacious against the coronavirus, Song said trying to boost the immune systems to fight the disease is a useful approach. More research into how traditional Chinese medicine could play a role might be useful.

“We need to prove the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine for it to be recognized. The outbreak could be an opportunity for us to discover the value of herbal medicine,” he said.

He also said COVID-19 could leave the lungs of sufferers permanently damaged, making them more vulnerable to pneumonia or lung cancer. Those therapeutic areas will pose new opportunities for biotech companies.

“Biotech companies need to think through their R&D strategy and identify unmet needs. They should not only set eyes on common diseases or aim at developing me-too products of blockbuster drugs,” Song said. “Innovation is a must.”