Biopharma industry leaders in China who were the first to experience the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic shared their thoughts during a closing plenary session of the virtual Bio-Europe Spring 2020 meeting.
As the U.S. braces for the full impact, restrictions in China are loosening. After two months of turmoil there, the numbers of confirmed cases are leveling out. Panelists offered their experience on lockdowns, stockpiling and leveraging resources to find treatments, vaccines and diagnostics.
“Whether you’re big or small, an idea or a great idea can come from anywhere,” said Sharon Chan, the head of Johnson & Johnson Innovations’ JLABS in Shanghai. “And even though we’re in challenging times, this gives us really a lot of hope and inspiration as everybody contributes to this ongoing international response.”
While the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 first surfaced in China in late 2019, it began impacting the Shanghai area just before the Chinese New Year on Jan. 25, a time when a lot of citizens choose to travel.
Greg Scott, CEO of ChinaBio Group and chair of the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai Healthcare Committee, said China’s COVID-19 cases have stabilized with just over 81,000 total and under 4,000 active cases. Both Europe and the U.S. have more cases now than China did during its outbreak.
“So there are lessons to be learned,” said Scott, who moderated the panel.
The shutdown in China began at the COVID-19 hub of Wuhan and the Hubei province, but was later extended to Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and several other major cities, Scott said from San Diego. He is currently unable to travel back to Shanghai.
At the 200-bed Shanghai Delta Hospital, workers began stockpiling supplies and medication ahead of the Chinese New Year. The hospital closed ambulatory services, outpatient clinics and canceled elective surgeries. Staff that had left the area for the holiday were quarantined upon their return.
“At one point,” said CEO David Hoidal, “I literally had half of my entire staff in quarantine.”
Xiao Jing Chen, the vice president and head of public affairs and corporate communications at Novartis China, said to protect employees, everyone began to work from home.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in Beijing in 2002 “is not like this,” she said.
Business at Novartis AG, which is headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, was severely affected due to the inability to travel places. About 200 employees who work in Hubei could not leave during the lockdown. One employee was confirmed to have COVID-19 but has since recovered.
“Our clinical trials had to stop because the patient cannot get back to the hospital to get the routine visit, and also our oncology patients in Hubei, we can hardly deliver the drug to them,” Chen said.
Shanghai-based Ark Biosciences Inc., which is working on a therapy for respiratory syncytial virus that could also have an application for COVID-19, had to pause some of its clinical studies because the research associates could not get to the hospitals, said founder and CEO Jim Wu.
“We would never think coronavirus would have such a huge impact on our society because we saw SARS, MERS come and go very quickly,” Wu said.
The current outbreak is “merely a turning point for many biotech companies,” Wu said. While some are working on a therapy, vaccine or diagnostic to address the immediate threat, the industry really needs to develop a broad-spectrum coronavirus drug because “COVID-19 is the seventh coronavirus that has appeared in the past 70 years,” he said, “so we do expect to see more strains of coronavirus come to our society and have a huge impact.”
J&J began working in early January 2020 to develop a vaccine against the virus when the viral sequence became publicly available, Chan said. The work is harnessing techniques used for the pharma’s Ebola vaccine. The company also is screening libraries of antiviral molecules.
“Honing into the JLABS at Shanghai portfolio, one-fifth of these startups here are working on or able to pivot their technology or platform to COVID-19,” Chan said.
Some examples include a Chinese medical device company using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and a digital stethoscope to collect respiratory sound of patients without touching their skin. Another JLABS company from Taiwan is working on a nanowire transistor point-of-care system that can be used to test people at airports and community health centers. An AI drug discovery startup in Hong Kong is generating hundreds of molecules that could target COVID-19, Chan said.
She recommends all companies stay prepared by having masks and other safety supplies, as well as providing the technology tools employees need to stay productive. Working from home was a smooth transition for both J&J employees and the JLABS entrepreneurs, she said. People are using Zoom conferencing, Skype, Microsoft teams, telephone calls, WeChat and video calls to stay connected.
The panelists agreed that COVID-19 lasted about two months in China. Wuhan travel is expected to reopen on April 8. In the meantime, keeping employees safe is a priority, although protecting medical doctors remains a challenge. At Shanghai Delta Hospital, staff were instructed to treat everyone as if they were infected.
The saying that “necessity is the mother of all invention” indicates that there will come a time when COVID-19 ends, Hoidal said. “Having gone through this, and I believe we’re at the tail end of it, there is an aspect of the team growing stronger.”