Biotechnology in the face of COVID-19

Biotechnology in the face of COVID-19

08 April 2020

Since the alarm bells went off about the threat of the new coronavirus in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, the biotechnology community has not stopped increasing its efforts to study the virus. The biotechnology sector, as it did during the crises caused by other diseases such as Ebola, avian flu, tuberculosis and AIDS, is redoubling its efforts in research and development of technologies and solutions to curb the pandemic.

In the case of our country, the biotechnology community is dedicated to studying the virus and developing diagnostics, treatments and vaccines that help protect people from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Many research centres and Spanish companies are working, in collaboration with international authorities -such as the WHO-, national governments, and philanthropic institutions, to find biotechnological solutions to the health emergency. The biotechnology sector is putting its work, knowledge and experience at the service of everyone so that every day we are closer to our goal. That vaccine that will succeed in bending this virus. The CNB-CSIC, the ISCIII and the IRB, public centres of the highest scientific level and institutional partners of AseBio together with five other research centres in our country, have been selected by the European Commission for the development of new vaccines, treatments and diagnostic methods. But we have to be realistic with the times.

Vaccines are complex and sophisticated biological products. Their development involves a huge effort in terms of time and resources devoted to research. On average, it takes around 12 years and more than half a billion euros to create a successful new vaccine. If we focus on the vaccine for the new coronavirus, the Coalition for Innovation in Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) estimates that it takes between 12 and 18 months to have the vaccine ready and a minimum investment of 2 billion dollars. The challenge, which is enormous, requires an exercise in transparency and unparalleled collaboration between all the actors in the science and innovation system to ensure that this sector develops its full potential to beat the pandemic.

And what else can biotechnology do in this crisis? In the short term, without a doubt, it can provide all its capabilities to achieve the materials that allow health professionals to carry out their work with all the guarantees of safety. Specifically, companies associated with AseBio have already developed kits for the detection of COVID-19. Others are working on therapies to improve the immune response. Spanish biotechnology companies also have the capacity to discover and develop new drugs, a capacity that has been made available to the health authorities.

But in addition to addressing the immediate, we must start working now on the future, focusing all our efforts on laying the groundwork to try to minimize future pandemics. And that only happens by continuing to increase research resources in a sector, biotechnology, which is intensive in knowledge. In 2018, investment in biotechnology accounted for 11.9% of the total expenditure on R&D activities in Spain; that is, out of every 100 euros spent on R&D in our country, almost 12 euros are spent on R&D in biotechnology.

From the conviction that science and innovation are our best tools to successfully face the challenges we face as a society, I would like to celebrate the decisions that the Administration, at its different levels, is taking to give a decisive boost to science as an essential part of the path we are taking, at great speed, towards the solution of the current health crisis.

The European Commission has called on startups and SMEs with technologies and innovations that can help in the treatment, testing, monitoring or other aspects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus outbreak. The Ministry of Science and Innovation, through the Centre for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI) has approved a series of urgent measures aimed at innovative companies to support R&D&I. Likewise, the Carlos III Health Institute has launched the COVID-19 Fund call, with 24 million euros for research projects against the coronavirus. All these actions show support and confidence in the science and innovation system to get out of the most difficult situations. The biotechnology sector is being part of this collective effort at different levels, leading and participating in projects that will allow us to take firm steps towards the solution of the pandemic.

Our society has been able to overcome major health crises such as Ebola and AIDS. The message I want to emphasize is that we beat all of them in the same way that we will beat the coronavirus: by adding up the response of each one of us.