November–December 2020: From the Editors

As 2020 draws to a close, we can’t help looking back at this year in which the biopharmaceutical industry has received more attention than ever before — scientifically, politically, and otherwise. We editors always have been conscious of (and pretty good at) separating our work and home lives. As many of you have learned this year, that’s an important part of working from home, which we’ve been doing for over a decade. But in recent months, reading the news and scrolling through social media seem to have become an extension of our work.

We’ve often wished that the general public better understood the realities of the biopharmaceutical industry. Before 2020, the attention you did get tended to be related to high prices and questions over bioethics. Now we see how that general lack of understanding translates to impatience with vaccine and treatment development timelines as well as legitimate concerns over safety and the supply chain. The outward messaging of your major lobbying organizations — the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) — can become politicized, which obscures the public’s view of your day-to-day concerns.

Public focus on the goal of getting back to “normal” as soon as possible doesn’t include some important concerns. We see those news items buried in sections of the paper that can indicate lesser importance. We’re all impatient for a vaccine, but what trade-offs should we accept? What if putting that first interrupts manufacturing capacity and distribution chains (and availability of raw materials) for other critical medications? Other portfolio products have ongoing capacity reservations with contract manufacturers. What gets put on hold, and for how long? Should the biopharmaceutical industry publicize more effectively the need for regulatory harmonization to enable manufacturing in other countries in response to these shifting demands? What trust issues about such practices linger in the public’s mind? Do people truly understand the potentially devastating effects of an ineffective or damaging vaccine — one launched too early — that could increase distrust of vaccination in general? You might overwhelm people with the complexities of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” but a public lacking some basic understanding of these relationships will put pressure on the industry to skip important steps.

The big picture we editors see as supporters of your industry includes everything from the technical nitty gritty to regulatory oversight to business trends. This year’s pandemic response has drawn from recent work among regulators, suppliers, service providers, and drug developers toward finding a new balance between safety and speed to market. Without that foundation to build on, the amazing progress you’ve made so far would not have been possible. But outside observers still complain, and politicians still try to make promises you can’t possibly keep without breaking the very important rules of safety, efficacy, and quality — not to mention the basic logistics of manufacturing and distribution.

Don’t let it get you down. Stay the course. We know your companies can’t take the legal and financial risk of moving too fast. That’s key no matter what kind of product you’re making, whether a pandemic vaccine or antibody for cancer, cell/gene therapy or recombinant nonantibody protein. We’re impressed by the industry leaders who’ve come together to make a public commitment to putting out the best possible products as soon as possible without cutting corners. That commitment is worth reiterating in this noisy information age — many people miss things the first time around.

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