The COVID-19 virus has had a devastating impact on our communities, personal health and economic vitality. For the week ending March 21, the John Hopkins tracking site reported more than 315,000 cases and more than 13,500 deaths.1 Appropriately, all major governments have been faced with taking draconian efforts to flatten the infection curve and allow our healthcare system to keep pace with the number of patients. However, the spread continues to increase and our healthcare providers are facing shortages of critical medical equipment and supplies, including ventilators, masks, testing swabs and protective gear.
The challenges go beyond mitigating the spread of this virus by flattening the curve to ensure we do not overwhelm our health system. It is also an economic challenge that must be considered alongside the medical and scientific expertise being put toward managing the pandemic.
Goldman Sachs revised its 2020 economic forecast predicting a 6% decline in Q1, a 24% decline in Q2 but then rebounding by 12% in Q3 and 10% in Q4 for a decline of 3.8% in full-year growth.2 As illustrated above, the significant challenge of meeting the needs of population health seems at odds with ensuring that normal economic activity resumes as quickly as possible.
Following are 7 predictions and 8 bold actions that offer perspectives on how to address the needs of population health while speeding the return to normal business activity.
The 7 predictions and 8 actions are illustrated in the above potential 6-month roadmap. The illustration links the proposed actions (‘A’ circles on the bottom half) to the predictions (‘P’ circles in the top half) to show how they can work together to accelerate improvement in population health and return to normal business activity.
Prediction 1: Within one week there will be recognized treatment leveraging existing drugs off-label. Just last week Australian doctors reported that a combination therapy of HIV drugs lopinavir/ritonavir paired with anti-malaria drug Chloroquine has had a significant positive effect on COVID-19 patients. Both the federal and NY state governments have recently put resources behind a drug combination of Hydroxychloroquine and an antibiotic Zithromax by expediting a reported 10,000 doses for use in [seriously] ill COVID-19 patients. 3
Finally, Chloroquine by itself is already being recognized as somewhat effective against COVID-19.4 WHO has launched a global megatrial of the four most promising coronavirus treatments. The study, which could include many thousands of patients in dozens of countries, has been designed to be as simple as possible so that even hospitals overwhelmed by an onslaught of COVID-19 patients can participate.
Prediction 2: Within four weeks there will be numerous treatments leveraging existing drugs off-label. Already, there is a wide range of drug and drug combinations that are gaining traction. Gilead’s anti-viral drug Remdesivir and Takeda’s plasma-derived therapy approach (TAK888).5 In addition, just last week a group of researchers “identified 31 existing broad-spectrum antiviral agents (BSAAs) that may be potential candidates for repurposing against the infection”.6
Prediction 3: Within eight weeks we will begin to see a mitigating effect from the weather. Based on current news stories, it is unclear whether summer will diminish the frequency of COVID-19 infections that occur in the same manner it as the seasonal flu virus. However, there appears to be substantial evidence suggesting that warm weather will have a mitigating effect on the transmission of the virus. The basis of evidence centers on analog virus studies such as SARS, correlation analysis of the current spread of COVID-19 and laboratory analysis of temperature effect on COVID-19.7 It is true that much of the evidence has not been peer-reviewed and in the case the COVID-19 temperature analysis, the source data is questionable, particularly given detection challenges and lack of testing. Despite these issues, the evidence in aggregate seems to indicate that summer will mitigate the virus’s transmission rate.
Prediction 4: Within twelve weeks initial safety results will become available from new drugs and the FDA will approve some drugs for emergency and humanitarian use. It was announced that a vaccine produced by Moderna began Phase 1 clinical trials for the first COVID-19 vaccine on March 16. The intent of this phase-1 study is to test safety and immunogenicity of three dose levels of mRNA-1273 (25, 100, 250 μg) to be given on a two-dose vaccination schedule, with a gap of 28 days.8
Beyond the Moderna trial, there are dozens of clinical trials in place with more to come. The release of safety results and initial efficacy evidence will be fast coming, offering more opportunities to consider “emergency” or “compassionate” opportunities of use. It is predicted that there will be enough safety data for regulators to seriously consider leveraging emergency “use” and “compassionate use” clauses within regulatory law to administer the most promising vaccines to at-risk populations and perhaps beyond.
Prediction 5: Within twenty-four weeks some COVID-19 vaccines will be approved for use at scale through existing or new humanitarian-use laws and policies. The challenge with this prediction is that, it is questionable whether regulatory law governing drug emergency and compassionate use can be applied proactively, when a potential patient has not been infected. This crisis will forever change how we deal with pandemics and by necessity, through either policy change or a broader interpretation of existing law, it is predicted that vaccines will be approved for use at scale.
Prediction 6: Within twelve months clinical trials will never be the same. The U.S. started its first clinical trial on March 16 and China began its first on March 18.9 Already, we are seeing streamlined and expedited clinical trial processes with heightened collaboration between pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. It is becoming more evident that a more agile clinical trial process is strategically important to human health now and to help mitigate and manage future global pandemics.
It may result in health authorities agreeing to accept approvals from agencies outside of their jurisdiction as an accelerator secure supply in exceptional circumstances, similar to the mutually recognized procedure (MRP) in the EU. In addition, it recognizes that our current processes are woefully inadequate to deal with an emergent pandemic, resulting in greater collaboration and competition to create an effective new process.
Prediction 7: By 2022 biopharmaceutical manufacturing will become a strategic asset. As Chloroquine has emerged as a possible treatment for COVID-19 the world is facing significant shortages of this drug as well as critical medical equipment and supplies. UK pharmacies have reportedly sold out of the drug, and the UK government has banned the export of three drugs to other countries10. If the previous predictions come true, it is easy to imagine a need to suddenly produce billions of doses of, in many cases, complex biopharmaceuticals. The global distribution of a limited supply could easily be confined to the country of origin regardless of ownership. It seems likely that the world will learn from this and view biopharmaceutical manufacturing as a strategic asset and seek more in-country manufacturing.
Action 1: Government health agencies should take the lead in advising on current drug off-label use and new drug emergency and compassionate use. Under the current US system, doctors are on their own to make difficult decisions about off-label drug use or to provide advice on using new drugs while simultaneously treating a surge in new patients. The providers are left to take the burden of tort risk when prescribing off-label drug use and some won’t do it leaving the patient in a vulnerable position. Central advice and the FDA, CDC, NIH, EMA, associations, and others are well-positioned to evaluate information and provide guidance that would ensure consistent decision making.
Action 2: Rework unapproved drug law and policy: To support the use of an unapproved preemptive drug (e.g., vaccine), there likely needs to be a rewrite of the U.S. emergency and compassionate use policy and law to ensure that proactive drugs such as vaccines can be allowed. Other global economies are likely to follow with statute changes.
Action 3: Scale remote patient monitoring capabilities: Remote monitoring of patients using existing wearable technologies can be an important capability in supporting the scaled use of off-label drugs or emergency and compassionate use of drugs. It can also be used to provide reassurance and support to vulnerable patients and their careers without the need to visit a healthcare facility reducing the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. It can be used as a mechanism to help mitigate the risk of using unapproved drugs. In addition, remote monitoring is already gaining widespread use in clinical trials today and should, therefore, be an easy action to take.
Action 4: Scale biopharmaceutical manufacturing capacity: Should suitable off-label and emergency-use treatments be found for COVID-19, it is likely that our current drug manufacturing capacity will be insufficient to meet the needs of the U.S. population, much less a global population. This will be particularly true with biopharmaceuticals manufacturing which is much more complex than the manufacture of traditional, small-molecule drugs.
To further complicate matters, most biopharmaceutical manufacturing is proprietary and either patented or considered a trade secret. It is difficult to imagine many companies willing to risk investing hundreds of millions of dollars to scale the manufacture of a drug that has not been FDA approved for a COVID-19 indication. However, the Federal Government can start to play a pivotal role now in helping proactively scale global manufacturing for drugs that have high potential for solving the crisis. If government can help minimize the risk through funding, guarantees, etc., it will be possible to dramatically improve the speed with which we collectively respond to the crisis by ramping up our ability to manufacture the needed medicines and treatments
Action 5: Global patient registry of cured patients: Many will question breach of privacy and others will cite the lack of testing as a major impediment to creating a registry, but there are several compelling reasons why this could significantly help fight the crisis:
- One potential treatment is plasma therapy, such as the one being tested by Takeda Pharmaceuticals, which will rely on plasma from recovered patients. The ability to quickly identify these patients and incent the provision of blood could dramatically help scale this treatment option.
- Better data can help model disease transmission and forecast herd immunity, which is when a sufficient number of the population has developed immunity, such that transmission of the virus is stopped. Understanding this information in conjunction with other preemptive measures can help better identify at-risk communities and enable better targeting of vaccine deployment and other solutions.
- Traceability of people who have had COVID-19, allows a core of “immune” people to return to work, enabling the economy to stabilize more quickly and to potentially provide second-line support to the healthcare systems.
- The inclusion of this data in genomic profiling tools alongside additional diagnostic viral testing will ensure that mutations and the longer-term effects of the virus can be understood. Some viruses remain dormant in the system and can cause a long-term impact on health when they reoccur, for example, Epstein-Barr, Cytomegalovirus, HIV.11 Payer/ providers can also use this information for predictive risk profiling.
- Improvement in the time taken to provide “point of testing”, results immediately will result in much-improved patient outcomes. Testing times have already reduced from days to minutes.12 The FDA approved a test that can detect the coronavirus within 45 minutes and can be processed without training.
Action 6: Facilitate insurance approval for experimental and off-label use drugs: Many people have experienced challenges getting insurance approvals for off-label drug use and experimental drugs. Large-scale use of unapproved drugs as done in the clinical trial setting is often paid for by the pharmaceutical company. If the use of off-label and experimental drugs increases, the current models of pricing and payment will break down. There will also be challenges for the uninsured in terms of affordability and access. One option is, for the US government to play a short-term role in brokering a public-private solution to this problem.
Action 7: Deploy a saturation strategy to increase public immunity: In a recent interview, Larry Brilliant, chairman of the board for Ending Pandemics and a former epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox 14 years ago, discussed the potential of deploying a saturation strategy to facilitate public immunity against the virus.13 Saturation is defined as proactively administering a drug in a high enough percentage within a population to create a herd immunity; usually at levels of 70-80%. Brilliant has modeled this for influenza by using Tamiflu and has shown that his approach works. Given the serious nature of COVID-19 perhaps this is a recommendation worth serious consideration and only the government is likely to be able to facilitate.
Action 8: Establishment of a global governance body: We are already beginning to see nationalistic interests emerge to protect local citizens. Nevertheless, there are a lot of challenges ahead with regard to optimizing global manufacturing capacity, free flow of clinical information, protection of IP rights, distribution of potentially scarce drugs and many others. Although nationalistic and individualistic tendencies in the midst of a life and death pandemic cannot be avoided, the establishment of a global governance or collaboration body can certainly help bring a level of cooperation and collaboration that will benefit the world’s population and a faster recovery for everyone.
This unprecedented lifetime event has showcased the best of innovation and resilience. Drug approval and deployment evolution will be critical to arresting the current pandemic. It will involve applying agile approaches; properly assessing risk and reward and making big bets to dramatically shorten the time to find and scale new therapies and drugs to address the current crisis. In conclusion, healthcare will never be the same again.
Global Managing Partner, Health and Life Sciences (U.S.)
Ed leads our Life Sciences practice in North America and oversees our offerings globally across this key industry segment. He joined us in 2019 from West Monroe Partners (WMP), where he was the national life sciences industry lead overseeing a diverse portfolio of over 20 top clients. Prior to WMP, he served as the managing partner for IBM’s North America life sciences strategy, transformation and analytics practice. Previously, Ed was a partner with Accenture and led their life sciences supply chain and Midwest region management consulting practices. He has over 25 years of experience working with both boutique and global management consultancies leading complex life sciences programs that include strategic cost reduction, connected health, cognitive and advanced analytics, and mergers and acquisitions.
Ed has an MBA from Syracuse University, masters in manufacturing engineering from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Academy. He serves as an executive editor and senior industry advisor for DistilINFO supporting two publications “Healthcare Digital CIO” and “Healthcare M&A”. He also volunteers as an executive mentor for Matter Healthcare in Chicago, an incubator supporting over 200 healthcare startups.
Global Managing Partner, Drug Development and Regulatory (U.K.)
Deborah joins us from Genpact Pharmalink, where she was vice president of global regulatory affairs. While there, she developed a technical regulatory strategy and innovation roadmap, and established several new consulting service lines for the firm. Deborah possesses strong expertise in managing complex global regulatory programs across product development, manufacturing and distribution, while some of her signature client engagements included work with Novartis, Pfizer, Teva, Eisai and AbbVie. Previously she was a regional IT director for Johnson & Johnson before moving into the consulting space.
Deborah graduated from the University of Chester with a degree in computer science and psychology, and currently resides in Maidenhead, United Kingdom. She is also a regular keynote speaker at prominent regulatory management conferences.
Associate Partner, healthcare strategist (U.S.)
Ellen is a highly accomplished senior-level leader in the health care industry, and has a more than 30 years of experience delivering strategic consulting to payers, providers, and life science companies. Ellen’s expertise involves designing strategic roadmaps for digital journeys for clients, and helping them execute those comprehensive plans. She began her career in clinical delivery, and over the course of her impressive career, she has worked with clients in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. She is a regular speaker on industry topics and was the keynote speaker at the Chinese Ministry of Health conference on healthcare.
Associate Partner, Health and Life Science
Vishal leads our commercial analytics and digital strategy offering. He joined us in early 2020 from IQVIA, where he was the commercial lead for several top pharma accounts, helping clients improve brand performance using advanced analytics, AIML and real-world data in key therapy areas of oncology, neurology, cardiovascular and immunology. Prior to IQVIA, he worked in the advisory practices of Accenture and PWC. He has over 18 years of experience working with global management consultancies leading complex life sciences strategies focused on patient, provider and integrated delivery networks strategies and tactics along product lifecycle globally. Vishal has an MBA in strategy and finance from Kelly School of Business, Indiana University, a masters in computer science from Cleveland State, and a bachelors in architecture from Punjabi University, India. He speaks at industry events such as the Emerging Market conference in Berlin and also volunteers as a 5th grade teacher in a Sunday school.