From The Editor | February 27, 2020

COVID-19: A Case For "Virtual" Biopharma?


By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online

coronavirus covid19

Work-and-learn from home policies are more than employee perks. They could help thwart a pandemic. Have you adopted procedures and tools that ensure continuity when employees aren’t in the office?

Now reported in 38 countries, COVID-19 continues its march toward pandemic status, even as reported new cases in and around its Wuhan ground zero showing signs of waning. At this writing, the WHO reported 81,109 confirmed cases globally (871 new in the previous 24 hours). China accounted for 78,191 confirmed cases and 2,718 deaths caused by the disease.

Even as the big picture indicates a downward trajectory of new cases globally (WHO’s epidemic curve clearly demonstrates a decline in new case reporting in China), new cases in new regions over the past week have sent markets south on fears of another Wuhan-like outbreak outside of China.

The health and economic impacts of the disease are so concerning and severe not only because there is not yet a vaccine nor an antiviral treatment for the disease, but because the outbreak is so acute. By way of comparison, Influenza—for which there are both vaccines and antiviral therapies—is far more deadly. As of this writing, it’s killed more than 16,000 in the US alone during the 2019/2020 flu season.

We’re playing catch-up with this one, and the collective response has been reactive. China instituted a quarantine. Many governments have imposed travel restrictions, locked down borders, and ramped up pre-entry health screenings. The life sciences community is scrambling to build vaccines and antiviral therapies. And the financial markets are getting whipped around like a rag doll on a rollercoaster. Perhaps the only societal institution doing anything proactive in the virus’ wake is the media, which is doing what the media does; peddling undue fear, uncertainty, and mistruth to anyone with ears.

Suboptimal, how society tolerates the impact of a novel virus outbreak such as this, isn’t it?

Of course we can’t spin up vaccines and treatments for afflictions yet unseen, and it’s impractical to do so even for those zoonotic viruses that we surmise could jump the species barrier, as in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But, can’t we be prepared to minimize the likelihood of outbreak, and to minimize the damage—human, financial, and social—when these inevitable eventualities happen? Isn’t it imperative, considering that Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch recently went on record telling The Atlantic that he thinks “the likely outcome is that [COVID-19] will ultimately not be containable.” Rather, say he and a host of other epidemiologists, this will become a new disease common during what we know as cold and flu season.

Containment is the cornerstone of a health disaster reaction plan. Important to master, but what if we took better steps to thwart the spread of viruses like this in the first place? What if we made more significant, societal-level adjustments to the way we work and learn? How would those changes affect the way you work and learn?

In recent weeks, a host of conferences have been postponed or altogether cancelled due to coronavirus fears. My colleague Ed Miseta, Chief Editor at Clinical Leader, suffered no such fate with his recent Clinical Leader Live event. The interactive 3-hour event featured dozens of subject matter experts speaking on a host of timely clinical trial best practices and was attended by more than 300 leaders from clinical-stage pharmas. They all logged in to the virtual event from the comfort of their offices. No one went home sick as a result.

A Catalyst For The Virtual Biopharma?

I split my workweek between the desk in my home office and that in our headquarters. For me, it’s a matter of practicality. Working from home cuts down on the otherwise ten hours I would spend per week commuting, giving me more time to spend with my family and support all the activity that’s inherent in a two-teen household. It allows me larger blocks of uninterrupted time to learn, plan, and write. And yes, it probably helps me stay healthy. I’m exposed to far fewer viruses and I get a little more sleep and exercise, so when those viruses come to call, my immune system is better equipped to handle them. Even when I am under the weather, I’m more productive from home. And that’s an important point to my employer and the economy in general. Some experts peg the annual cost of productivity lost at the hands of presenteeism—the term coined to describe attendance by sick employees that results in low-productivity workdays—at more than $150 billion annually.

Many new / emerging biopharma companies, and even some progressive large pharmas, have embraced work-from-home employment arrangements. Getting comfortable with “telecommuters,” as they were called in my day, now will only reduce disruption in the eventuality a critical element of you workforce is inclined—or required—to work from home during a pandemic outbreak. Use tools like Slack and Zoom, which enable the kinds of casual and face-to-face interactions commonplace in the office. Implement a secure VPN to give your employees anywhere, anytime access to critical apps and data. You’ll be surprised at the efficiency gains you realize, whether or not there’s a global pandemic in play. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that even as the stock market suffers its worst period since the Great Recession, Zoom stock was trading up more than 6 percent on Feb. 27.

In the IT space that I covered for many years prior to joining BioProcess Online, many of the companies I covered developed work-from-home policies and procedures as part of their disaster preparedness plans. These are tech and data security companies charged with maintaining IT infrastructure uptime for their clients. One such company, for instance, was operating out of Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit during the summer of 2017. None of its employees reported for work during the storm, but neither did any of the company’s clients experience any downtime. The company was the hero of the day, because it was prepared to manage a remote workforce.

Redundancy is another concept we can steal from the IT world and apply here. Data is the blood, the primary life-giving asset, of the IT infrastructure. Good IT management companies ensure their clients’ data is continually backed up in multiple places; in the cloud, in the local server room, on a remote server in rural Idaho. Emerging biopharma companies like yours have the benefit of agility. Your talent—the root source of your intellectual property—is your greatest asset. Distributing that asset redundantly via a virtual office that enables and empowers remote workers is your version of redundancy. Demand this kind of redundancy from your CRO and other outsourcing partners, as well.

That kind of proactive strategy might help curtail the spread of outbreaks such as this, while assuring the continuation of your important work as a catalyst of the increasingly important therapies and vaccines required to combat emerging diseases.

Establishing work from home procedures and adopting the enabling tools shouldn’t be considered a worst-case scenario, by the way. A virtual office strategy is a great way to expand the appeal of your firm to distributed talent, which will both contribute to your important work and improve the valuation of your company. And when your competitors in San Francisco and Boston are suffering the inefficiencies of a quarantine, your distributed HR assets will be conducting business as usual.