San Francisco typically experiences a strange change in January. Casually dressed townspeople are suddenly infiltrated by thousands of costumes, delegates to the annual JPMorgan healthcare conference.
This year the conference was held online, but the dissonance remained. In the real world, politicians assure us that vaccines herald the start of the end of the pandemic. We can hope to see relatives soon. Summer vacation bookings in Europe have increased.
Yet in the virtual world of the conference, the healthcare industry was preparing for a lasting war on Covid. “We believe more than four to six months ago, say, that there will be a level of testing that will certainly continue throughout FY22,” said Tom Polen, CEO of Becton Dickinson, in New Jersey. based manufacturer of syringes and tests.
Two more years from this? If anything, that’s optimistic, according to Stephen Tang, managing director of OraSure Technologies, a rival diagnostics company. “The need for testing to continue testing Covid-19 will last well beyond 2022, certainly in sophisticated economies,” Tang said. “And then for low and middle income countries, maybe until 2027 or 2030, unfortunately. But I think that’s the state of play of this virus and the world’s populations. “
Perhaps there is more joy from vaccine makers, companies transformed into the public imagination, from greedy patent exploiters to the saviors of humanity. The extraordinary achievements of people like BioNTech, Pfizer, Modern, University of Oxford and AstraZeneca surely offer a quick return to normality?
Not so fast. “We know that is changing and that it changes little or a lot, that’s something we are planning,” said Angela Hwang, a Pfizer executive, questioning the virus’s ability to mutate. “So we can be in a place where we might need a new vaccine.”
Today’s crops, despite their remarkable speed of development and efficiency, risk becoming useless. Scientists expect a mutant strain to escape their grasp. Pharmaceutical companies are confident they can respond, but that requires adapting vaccines, getting regulatory approval (ideally without another round of full trials), and restarting manufacturing.
In a positive scenario, this becomes as fluid as annual influenza vaccines, or as an inoculation for all strains is developed. In the worst case, we are always behind in the evolution of the virus.
Although vaccines can treat variants, there is a large selection of the population ineligible for current vaccines, a barrier to herd immunity.
Stephane Bancel, managing director of Moderna, told the conference that the company will soon begin to address this problem by testing its vaccine on young children “but it will take much longer” because scientists will proceed with caution with low doses. We shouldn’t expect test data until next year.
At least there is some positive news for investors. JPMorgan analysts are concerned about the “sustainability of favorable vaccine winds” to profits of pharmaceutical companies. Do not worry. “From where we sit here at Pfizer, we see it as a sustainable business,” Ms. Hwang said. “And this is a business and a research that we are going to have to continue to do for a long time.”