Session report: COVID-19 impact and lessons learned
AMR experts from Industry, SMEs, academia and public bodies discussed the impact of COVID-19 on AMR innovation. Overall, optimism is there that rising public awareness helps to address and overcome remaining challenges.
After the overall welcome from BEAM alliance representative Deborah O’Neill and her short summary on the important role of SMEs to drive innovation in the field, the discussion in the opening session focused on how COVID-19 impacted stakeholders activities in the past year.
“We are receiving more attention for infectious diseases and TB than before, also within the companies’ overall business”, concluded David Barros-Aguirre, Head of GSK Global Health Pharma R&D Unit in Tres Cantos, Spain, after his keynote presentation on the current state of TB R&D. He and the other experts expressed hope that the trend is lasting and that further governmental and public action will provide the basis for a more general shift in thinking toward pandemic preparedness and infectious diseases.
Janet Hemingway, Founding Director of UK-based consortium iiCON, underlined the fact that “AMR hasn’t gone away during the COVID-19 pandemic” and that “we need further lobbying among politicians that we now need long-term support to tackle this more silent one”. She also acknowledged that the foreseen work on AMR under the umbrella of the iiCON initiative was more distracted due to COVID and that they have picked up more virus-related work first. She nevertheless is convinced that AMR R&D will benefit in the long-term perspective.
Justin Yang from BARDA reflected the discussions some years ago towards a possible pandemic and underlined that we now need to make sure the right actions are resulting from the current debates. He agreed with Janet that more attention to health security issues are needed and reminded that there normally is a five-years-window of policy attention on those topics and that AMR stakeholders should use it.
David Barros-Aguirre was optimistic to reach it and emphasized that further funding could also hold big potentials with regard to new technologies to be used for AMR as well. For Janet Hemingway the fast vaccine approval processes showed options for easier and faster pathways. “This open ups the route for conversations on how we can take time and cost out of the process for the AMR space as well. Without COVID-19 this would have been much more difficult, now we can at least start from something and will push these discussions forward.”
Justin Yang underlined that there are still remaining challenges with regard to regulatory pathways and particularly narrow windows for endpoints, for instance. From this perspective, he supported the idea of developing joint and shared platforms and tools, as they have been represented from iiCon for instance, so that the AMR community could use them for a variety of diseases and clinical trial designs. From his personal perspective, this at the end could help to speed regulatory routes in general, he said, as regulatory bodies might feel more comfortable the more often a new instrument or tool is used.
In the second part of the session, academic representatives reflected on their experiences of the past year and how COVID affected the establishment of new research consortia and public-private partnerships. Christoph Dehio from University of Basel, Switzerland, for instance, said that it was quite challenging to kick-off the new large swisswide AntiResist research network which received funding for 12 years from the government in early 2020. On the other hand, he pointed towards the current good momentum of pushing forward the AMR topic within the infectious diseases area and underlined that the more patient-centred approach of the AntiResist network could provide the necessary innovation potential for more effective treatment strategies in the future. “We need to fuel the innovation pipeline in the AMR area and within our network we are aiming to revitalize the whole discovery process”, Dehio explained.
A sort of new kick-off for further translational initiatives was also presented by Jürgen Popp from the German research campus infectognostics. Being part of a new infrastructure funded by the German Federal research ministry he was optimistic that faster strategies for bringing proof-of-concepts towards market ready technologies and products will be established in the next years. The major goal of the so-called Leibniz Centre for photonics in infectious diseases is to set up an open-user infrastructure for the development of new diagnostics and therapies and to significantly accelerate R&D processes towards market ready stages. “AMR-related projects remains one of our major topics, although also some new virus-related work was added due to COVID-19”, he said.
During the panel discussion, the SME perspective was represented by Philippe Villain-Guillot, CEO & Co-founder from French biotech company Nosopharm. Being involved in the IMI-funded GNA Now consortia, he provided some insights into this collaborative network of different stakeholder in Europe. For instance, he reported about some COVID-19 related challenges for researchers such as shortages in lab equipment, lack of in-person meetings and conferences and limited capacities of clinicians and hospitals to prepare clinical trials. “We aim to start with our first-in-man clinical studies next year, and very much hope that it can be done.” However, he also pointed towards the fact, that experienced staff to run clinical trials in the AMR field was already difficult to find before the pandemic hit the world. “Due to the reduced interest of pharma companies into AMR R&D over the past years, there is a significant lack of senior staff, more than with regard to early stage researchers”, Villain-Guillot told the audience.
The other panelists also agreed to these shortages and also explained that some delays occurred for their activities within AntiResist and the Jena-based new infrastructure due to the challenging hiring processes that were in place during the lockdown periods in the respective countries. Jessica Boname, moderator of the panel and representative for the cross-national European funders network JPI AMR, highlighted the potential for cross-European collaboration and the resources and funding offered by JPI AMR. She announced a new therapeutics-related funding call to be officially published in January and pointed to the establishment of the virtual JPI AMR platform which helps to receive an overview of ongoing R&D in the different areas and countries. As a conclusion, the academic stakeholders in the discussion emphasized their optimism that AMR-related R&D remains recognized as an important pillar to fight current and future pandemics, and that it is the right moment to kick-off further initiatives.