The Impact of COVID-19 on the Biotech Industry

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world, companies are doing their part to reduce risk of exposure and flatten the curve. Biotechnology companies specifically are doing their part to follow social distancing guidelines while still contributing to the progress being made to combat the Coronavirus and other major health threats. These companies and many others are working vigilantly to respond to this global crisis, and most are still in operation as they are considered ‘essential business’. With concerns about employee health and safety, as well as the wider repercussions for public health, remote work, along with adjustments to essential laboratory work is likely to be the new norm for most in this industry until the threat of the virus has been minimized.

In order to better understand the challenges biotech leaders are facing as a direct result of the pandemic, we reached out to 8 biotech execs from small start-ups, to mature, larger corporations – to discuss the effects the pandemic has had on their companies.

How has COVID-19 affected your company?

With the exception of essential workers, most people are mandated to work from home in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Because the nation depends on the continuity and availability of its healthcare system, most health manufacturing, biotechnology, medical equipment distributors, pharmaceutical and personal protective equipment companies are still performing normal duties. According to U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “Functioning critical infrastructure is imperative during the response to the COVID-19 emergency for both public health and safety as well as community well-being. Certain critical infrastructure industries have a special responsibility in these times to continue operations.”

We heard a variety of answers when it came to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected biotechnology companies. An HR Exec from a biotherapeutic company in Massachusetts said they are essential and although they have been instructed to work from home, the company is open and employees have a choice of coming in or working remotely. A Director of Antibody Discovery with an immunotherapy company in the Boston area says it has isolated them, slowing down their lab work, halting experimentation, but has forced the company to focus on communication. In the beginning, they had to reassure staff that it was okay to take the time they needed to look after their families, and their jobs are secure. This type of communication, reassurance, connection and structure is what is pushing the company forward right now.

Many companies with staff working from home are encouraging employees to attend online seminars and training. A director from a biotech company in Seattle says they have taken the approach that most of what they do on the pre-clinical side isn’t critical so they have instructed those working from home to improve on certain skills and areas of interest via online training.

Albert Hunt, Jr., CEO of Advanced Organic Synthesis says business has not stopped, they are running a modified lab schedule – no more than 1 person in the lab at a time – and are keeping the more at risk individuals at home. However, with the world wide chemical shortage, the supply chain has been affected greatly.  “You cannot get the raw materials you need to make the APIs, the pharmaceutical intermediates or the final compounds for a company that’s going to be reselling your items.  It’s very hard to get the raw materials.  In the U.S. we don’t make a lot of these materials any more, they are mostly imported.”

Veronique Bougie, COO at Mperia Therapeutics says they are a small start-up, so they are accustomed to working remotely, however, they are reliant on the use of academic facilities and laboratories which are now closed.

Our business model was based on collaborations with academic labs. Now that the Universities have limited the access to their facilities and platforms, we have had to adjust our plans and focus on other activities that don’t require access to the bench.”

Dede Willis, CEO and Cofounder at Orbit Genomics says they too have relationships with universities and although some are still open, most are only focused on COVID-19, so, from a research and fundraising perspective, things are definitely slowing down.

What tools have improved work culture?

Some major challenges of working from home can be the inability to access all of the information you need to do your job and can simply be the lack of experience using some of the new remote tools. So how are Biotech companies handling this? Are they substituting with new tools or are they making more intensive use of some existing tools?

A Director from a biotech company in Seattle says they have been using Yammer for internal blogs to connect and engage across the organization as well as hosting virtual happy hours. Some of the most commonly used tools that have helped organizations stay in communication with each other are:

Albert Hunt, Jr., CEO of Advanced Organic Synthesis says they are doing a lot of conference calls. “Our company is an intermediate, we make chemicals that other companies use to put into their final product…There is a lot more communication with the procurement side, with both vendors and buyers.  They are needing things they haven’t needed before, for example the compounds to make the kits for testing for COVID-19.”

How can you foster trust in a team with members working remotely and continue productivity?

The challenges of effective remote work go beyond just deploying and mastering the necessary technological tools. Getting people to remain productive and collaborate with the rest of the team while working remotely can be challenging. However, many of the biotechnology companies we spoke to said there haven’t been any trust issues because of the dedication each individual has to their work. It might be difficult at times to work the same type of days they are used to; employees have to help their children with school on certain days, coordinate grocery outings, etc.

A Director of Antibody Discovery with an Immunotherapy company says “setting expectations for staff” and “keeping things task oriented” has been helpful. He wants them to be able to balance productivity but also not put too much pressure on them. Many of the employees have families to care for, so they are giving remote staff tasks to be completed and the timeframe the tasks need to be completed by. Keeping things “task oriented” has helped, “setting the expectations and then tracking, monitoring and discussing with the staff if anything does come up.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the morale of workers?

Pandemics like the current COVID-19 can be scary, especially considering the threat to our physical health, people are concerned they might become ill. Beyond that, people are also worried about the potential effects of the pandemic on their jobs. Those who are more focused on working in the lab can start to feel detached and maybe even a little more anxious about it. CEO of Advanced Organic Synthesis says they have modified their shifts in the lab to ensure the at-risk group is protected. “My biggest concern is keeping my people from getting sick.” says Albert Hunt, Jr.

Other companies say morale is high because they have been brought together in a focused effort to keep their company operational. Some even saying you can compare this time of uncertainty to a reorganization. With that being said, communication and the continuance of operations is key in keeping up morale. Veronique Bougie, COO at Mperia Therapeutics says:

“Resilience and adaptation are key. We know it is not the end of the world and that there will be a light after all of this. Of course, things will most probably be different but changes are opportunities for improvement or to start a new chapter. Meantime, actively supporting the global efforts to identify new treatments is motivating our team. There have been a lot of grants dedicated to COVID-19 work that have been deployed by our government and we are now collaborating with a new group.”

Have you thought about what post COVID-19 will look like for your business?

Many are brainstorming on re-entry, post shelter in place, and how biotech and pharma industries are going to get back to normal business. Since social distancing will likely still be needed in the future, what will the new normal look like? “It is really too early to know.” Says an HR Exec from a Biotherapeutic company in Massachusetts. They will have to wait and see what the CDC recommends about social distancing guidelines and what the governor says about schools and business openings.

One biotech exec says their company will probably have to do “staggered shifts and leverage automation wherever possible.”  Several execs mentioned they would like to donate reagents and personal protective equipment but were unsure how much to donate because they don’t want to be out of stock when they resume business and it’s difficult to predict what types of supply and logistic issues will exist in the future.

Final comments from our Biotech Executives

In all, there are many things you can do within teams to keep people feeling positive and engaged. Here are just a few final comments from our biotech leaders:

  • Veronique Bougie, COO at Mperia Therapeutics: Evolving in a risky environment such as start-ups for a couple of years allow us to mitigate the stress related to uncertainties. Good ideas, innovations and teams will go through bumpy roads. The less good ones won’t, and crisis like this could indeed accelerate the sorting of it. Focus on the present moment, what you can do, how you can adjust, and most importantly, be indulgent in the current circumstances.”
  • Dede Willis, CEO and Cofounder at Orbit Genomics: “I spent a lot of my career in Germany and I still have a lot of colleagues there and a colleague mentioned to me that one of the things they are doing in Germany, besides all of the testing and limiting meetings to a maximum of 2 people, is calling it ‘physical distancing’ not ‘social distancing’ which I think is a much better term and much more accurate. It would help people to understand.  A lot of people are really confused about that, along with whether they should wear a mask.  If we used the term ‘physical distancing’ it really helps people understand that you don’t have to be socially isolated but you do need to be physically distant.  I’ve been trying to use that term myself.”
  • Albert Hunt, Jr., CEO of Advanced Organic Synthesis: “With the world-wide shortage of chemicals, we really need to evaluate our supply chain as a country, how we are dependent upon other nations right now. We need to revaluate if that is how we want to maintain or if we need to support manufacturing efforts here so we can take care of ourselves.  That would increase jobs.”
  • Director of Antibody Discovery with an Immunotherapy company: “I know that our site head is keeping a fairly close track of the COVID-19 science and sharing the new things that are coming out about the virus, how to take care of yourself and any new findings like that. When someone senior in the company is doing that and sharing some of that knowledge with the staff, it helps everybody to feel a bit more informed and secure.  He has also been the biggest proponent of giving everyone the room they need to take care of themselves and take care of their families and make sure that we don’t catch or spread the virus.  Having a senior manager really concerned about employees’ welfare is very helpful.”
  • HR Exec from a biotech company: “What’s been effective here are timelines and how we manage our resources. Our vision should not change, which is putting patients first, trying to improve the lives of patients and increase the lifespan and the health of the patients we serve and I don’t think that has changed.  I don’t think it will and I think that’s why our morale is high and people are bringing it.”
  • Director from a biotech company in Seattle: “keeping people engaged and busy is key… We also have a few teams, especially our site leader and executive management team that have been working very hard to keep everyone in the know. Also, understanding that it’s not going to be exactly the same when you come back and putting some preparation into that. For example, we can’t have everyone coming into the office immediately, we will have to have some plans in place to make sure it’s safe and we are not putting people at risk.  The other part is maybe we have learned a little bit from this and some people don’t always have to be in the office…We may have a different perspective on things when we get back when it comes to what things are actually critical and what we want to be critical.”

None of us can say with any confidence how the economy and society will look over the coming days, weeks or months. There are just too many unknowns. But one thing is clear, organizations need to adapt to remain competitive. Biotechnology companies are doing their part by following social distancing guidelines yet, still contributing to the progress being made to combat the coronavirus and other major health threats. These companies and many others are working vigilantly to respond to this global crisis, with modified operations and continued communication amongst each other. Remote work and adjusted laboratory schedules are likely to be the new norm for most in this industry until widespread testing and vaccines are available.

Note: Insight Recruitment would like to extend our thanks to all the Biotech Executives who gave so willingly of their time as we researched the themes shared in this article. Your shared experiences will hopefully help others appreciate that the challenges they’ve faced and the ways they’ve had to adapt are not unique to them. Thank you and stay safe.

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