Roche’s Cristin Hubbard and Paulo Fontoura, and others involved in the COVID-19 response, share their perspectives on how the evolving pandemic has required a multifaceted, collaborative approach.
COVID-19 has profoundly impacted the world we live in. Within months, national lockdowns, business closures and social distancing measures had changed life as we knew it, while a novel coronavirus ravaged even the furthest corners of global society. We had to adapt to this new, fast-paced and ever-evolving environment. This meant we needed an unprecedented drive in innovation across the globe; one that was only possible through tireless collaboration.
Around the world, industry, academia, governments, and non-profit organisations joined forces to fight the pandemic. These partnerships have been paramount in combatting the disease and investigating options that meet the varying needs of patients, healthcare professionals and society at large.
As a healthcare company, we have a responsibility to help overcome the pandemic. We’re working to support countries in managing COVID-19 by providing tools that help diagnose the virus, so that people may receive the appropriate treatments and are able to return to their normal lives’ more quickly. Roche employees have also worked tirelessly to develop new treatment options for COVID-19 as it continues to evolve. Our aim is to help reduce the spread of the virus, and support those who are most affected by COVID-19.
It has been two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic.1 We’ve asked leading researchers, Roche experts and healthcare professionals to reflect on the great strides that have been made in the effort to tackle the pandemic during crucial timepoints. We hope to learn from them as we navigate living with COVID-19, together. Click through the months below to read what they had to say.
It has been two years since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.1 In this time, unparalleled collaboration and innovation in global healthcare has meant that we now have numerous COVID-19 diagnostic tools, treatment options, and vaccinations.
In a statement, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO, reflects on what the global community has achieved:
“While no country is out of the woods from the pandemic, WHO has collaborated with industry, academia and governments to deliver many tools to prevent and treat COVID-19. WHO and our partners are helping to make vaccines, tests and treatments accessible to people who need them, all over the world. As we enter the third year of this pandemic, I’m confident that this will be the year we end it – but only if we do it together.”
Despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases in some parts of the world due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant, many countries start to ease restrictions and attempt to return to normal life. The scientific community predicts that the virus may become more consistent and predictable, as it shifts from being a pandemic disease to an endemic illness.2 This will bring new challenges, as we learn to manage COVID-19 alongside other seasonal infections, such as influenza. For now, the global community continues to support countries with high medical needs due to the pandemic.
The Omicron variant begins to split into new ‘sub-variants’, reminding us of the ever-evolving nature of the virus and its potential to change its response to the tools developed to fight it, as well as its effect on the body.3
“As we enter a new stage of the pandemic, it goes without saying that we are fully committed to meeting people’s evolving needs. We will continue to strive to support those who are most impacted by COVID-19 and play our part in moving the world to the position of living with this disease by providing treatment options and tests that help people affected and allow society to function with few or no restrictions.”
As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect people in different parts of the world, organisations and healthcare companies work together to ensure that tests, treatments and vaccines reach those most in need.
“Healthcare systems in certain parts of the world are still struggling to cope with COVID-19 and care needs remain unprecedented. We want to make sure that our COVID-19 treatment options and tests reach as many eligible people as possible, but we can’t do this alone. We understand that addressing health inequalities is a shared responsibility, so since the start of the pandemic, we’ve formed important partnerships with WHO, global health organisations, health authorities and others. The WHO prequalification of one of our COVID-19 treatment options is just one of the many ways in which we are collaborating to expedite access to care. We are also providing one of our COVID-19 medicines to WHO and partners to distribute to low- and middle-income countries in line with public health needs.”
As concern over the Omicron variant grows, governments enforce new measures to slow the spread of disease. To help understand its behaviour, Roche rapidly develops tests that assist researchers in determining whether a person is infected with Omicron or a different variant.6
Countries struggle with different challenges depending on which variant has infected most of the population. In some places, Delta is dominant, which causes more severe illness despite spreading less quickly than Omicron.7
“Observing the rapid emergence of variants of concern, it became clear that approaches that can benefit people, regardless of which variant they are infected with, were required to meet global needs. In particular, treatment options for the severely ill would continue to be important to reduce the burden on hospitals.”
At the same time, Roche works with its partner SD Biosensor to launch a rapid test that differentiates between COVID-19 and influenza.6
“In the northern hemisphere, the winter season brought new challenges as influenza and COVID-19 spread through communities at the same time, further increasing pressure on hospitals. This highlighted the need for doctors to be equipped with tools that can quickly diagnose people, provide the correct course of treatment and ultimately prevent further spread in the community.”
The roll out of COVID-19 vaccination booster campaigns in some countries highlights the inequality in distribution of vaccines, treatment options and tests around the world. International experts come together at the World Health Summit to discuss solutions to enable global access to these tools.
"Access and innovation have to go hand in hand, but how can we do this in a sustainable way? At Roche, we will invest more in research and development, price responsibly, find ways to reduce the cost of illness overall to support sustainable healthcare systems, and work to address the root causes behind inadequate access in every country in the world. This is a shared responsibility, which involves private and public sectors working together, challenging the status quo and driving change."
During this meeting, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO, also calls for global collaboration to end the pandemic:
“This pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it. It is in our hands. We have all the tools we need – effective public health tools and effective medical tools. No country can end the pandemic in isolation from the rest of the world and no country can protect the health of its own without protecting the health of all people.”
"Over the past two years, we have heavily invested in innovative solutions to track, monitor and help minimise the impact of COVID-19. Ensuring equitable access to our tests has remained our number one priority and we continue to work with our global partners to achieve this. We have also expanded our Global Access Programme to make one of our COVID-19 tests available to, and affordable for, people in low- and middle-income countries."
Amidst ongoing discussions about the potential need for booster vaccinations, new clinical trial data continues to be released in the hope of broadening available treatment options.
The northern hemisphere fast approaches its upcoming influenza season. Lessons from the once insurmountable challenges of the pandemic may offer solutions to future outbreaks.
"We have made great strides in understanding the infectivity and transmissibility of COVID-19, but we still have a lot to learn. There is hope that these learnings will inform the global approach to future pandemics. For example, the record low levels of circulating influenza due to lockdowns and social distancing measures during this past winter season show that these measures can save lives and are effective at keeping airborne viral infections at bay."
"The tools and technologies we’ve used during the pandemic may forever change our approach to managing the journey of people in the healthcare system. In some countries, people are familiar with tracking their symptoms on mobile apps, being notified when they’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, having online doctor’s appointments and receiving test results via text. While these solutions existed pre-pandemic, their use on a wider scale has accelerated innovation in digital healthcare technology and how we engage with our health data and healthcare systems."
Treatment guidelines around the world are updated with new recommendations for COVID-19 care.
As more variants of concern are identified globally, researchers investigate how these mutations might affect the ongoing pandemic.
"We needed to understand the impact of these mutations on the virus’s ability to spread between people, and whether this might cause different, or more severe, symptoms. Once again, clinical trials were swiftly initiated to understand whether the available treatments and vaccines, or those in development, were still able to combat these viral variants, and testing became more important than ever to track the global spread of variants."
"While the vaccination roll-out brings hope to many, the ongoing emergence of COVID-19 variants highlights the importance of sensitive tests that can help healthcare systems monitor emerging mutations. We are constantly ensuring that our tests are able to detect new viral variants with accuracy and reliability. As some mutations may cause the virus to spread more rapidly; this brings an urgent need to process more patient samples faster, so people can be diagnosed earlier, and breakouts are effectively controlled."
Roche and its partners continue to work with regulatory authorities around the world to bring potential COVID-19 therapies to those that need them.
As 42 countries roll out their COVID-19 vaccination programmes, multiple governments begin identifying viral variants of concern.12
"At a time when most of Europe was in the grip of another wave of infections, the emergence of new variants once again increased the need for mass testing. We worked with academic institutions and healthcare offices to ensure that our tests were available in countries with the greatest need at the time. We also partnered with Moderna to include our antibody tests in their ongoing COVID-19 vaccine trials. These tests were crucial to helping us understand how the immune system reacts to the vaccine."
Later, new data on the use of one of our COVID-19 treatments is announced, contributing to our understanding of the disease.6
"One of the challenges that academics and clinicians face during the pandemic is explaining why we often see mixed results for treatments in different clinical trials. There are often key distinctions in the design of these trials: how many patients are enrolled? How severe are their symptoms? Which COVID-19 variant are they infected with? Is the trial designed to study only one treatment, or multiple treatments, or combinations of those treatments? This is by no means an exhaustive list of considerations, so trying to determine whether a treatment is effective in these different settings is extraordinarily challenging, and contrasting findings highlight that more research is needed to understand the pathology of this complex disease."
The number of COVID-19 cases rising globally brings increased pressure on healthcare systems to cope with soaring demand.
"We must acknowledge that this pandemic has placed an immense strain on healthcare professionals around the world, who have had to make incredibly difficult decisions in the context of limited information. Conducting randomised clinical trials in such a rapid manner was very challenging but led to significant advances which improved patient care. As more care options become available for use, the hope is that this will ease the pressure on healthcare systems by providing patients and doctors with more solutions to save lives."
In the months to come, positive clinical trial data are released showing that some vaccines under investigation may effectively prevent COVID-19 from causing severe illness.14 Regulatory bodies work around the clock to evaluate the data and secure approvals.
"As COVID-19 evolved, it was clear that a multi-pronged approach including vaccines, testing, and multiple treatments, was needed to combat this virus and keep people from being hospitalised. To this end, Roche launched a rapid antigen laboratory test that is conducted close to where a person is receiving care to help determine whether they are currently infected with COVID-19, so that they can take the necessary steps to reduce the spread of disease."
By the end of the year, the United Kingdom becomes the first country in Europe to begin rolling out its vaccination programme.15
As the global need to urgently scale up testing in resource-limited settings intensifies, Roche diagnostics teams develop a rapid test, known as lateral flow, that can determine whether a person has COVID-19 within 15 minutes, helping doctors to make on-the-spot decisions about patient care quickly and accurately.6
"We had to tackle the situation on multiple levels: One single approach would not match the challenges posed by this pandemic. It was vital to develop the appropriate diagnostic tools to stem the spread of the disease, and to inform the best treatment approaches. In addition, we worked hand in hand with regulatory bodies around the world to get timely approval to support mass testing."
“We had already invested considerable efforts toward developing new treatments for people infected with COVID-19. However, scientific advances were now showing us additional ways to intercept the virus. We realised that our research, development and manufacturing strengths might help bring these more advanced options to people around the world faster. With this in mind, we partnered with Regeneron to develop and supply another treatment option that was in clinical trials."
Industry and governments acknowledge the need to anticipate and prepare for potential upcoming challenges of the pandemic. A landmark resolution is set at the WHO’s 73rd World Health Assembly to bring countries together to fight the virus by ramping up global efforts to control the pandemic, and calling for global access to, and distribution of, all essential health technologies and products to combat the virus.18
Pivotal new data reveal that almost one in three individuals infected with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic.19
Roche intensifies its response, exploring partnerships with academia, governments, and other health bodies, including the
"Through ongoing knowledge sharing on a global scale between clinicians, researchers and industry, our understanding of COVID-19 improved. This facilitated a more proactive approach and led to unprecedented progress in testing and treatment development – not to mention the speed with which vaccines were brought forward."
There is an unparalleled global effort to launch testing options and
In just 38 days, Roche teams develop an accurate and reliable test to detect whether a person currently has COVID-19. The test is authorised for emergency use in the US within weeks of the virus making headlines globally, with other countries soon to follow.6
"The development of tests that can rapidly check for a SARS-CoV-2 infection across large groups of people was key to helping countries manage and track the virus through testing programmes. Through faster diagnosis, doctors were able to make quick and meaningful decisions for their patients."
In parallel, researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom inject the first person in early COVID-19 vaccine trials.21
"Our experience from the SARS pandemic and HIV epidemic taught us that working together was the only way to effectively respond to the urgent public health need. However, I have never seen such rapid mobilisation and collaboration between industry, academia and governments take place on this global scale. To think that so many well-designed clinical trials were initiated within months of the pandemic becoming a reality is extraordinary for a process that would normally take years."
In the months to come, our team develops an antibody test to determine whether a person has previously been infected with COVID-19 in the hopes that this will help the world understand the spread of the virus.6
As the global threat of COVID-19 emerges, scientists around the world work tirelessly to identify whether existing tests or treatments may be effective in combatting this new coronavirus.
"In the early stages of the pandemic, the global medical community had a very limited understanding of the disease and how to treat it. Frontline healthcare professionals worked with urgency to understand and establish care options, particularly for people who were severely ill."
"Once we were notified that one of our therapies was being used off-label to treat people with severe COVID-19 in China, with promising results, we immediately ramped up manufacturing and a large global development programme to rigorously assess the potential benefit of this therapy in this setting."
"It was clear early on that this was a novel coronavirus and no existing tests could accurately diagnose it. We began referring to this virus as SARS-CoV-2, as it closely resembles the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus we saw in 2002. Given the severity of the 2002 SARS outbreak, we knew we had to do everything possible to help. As soon as our pandemic tracking team became aware of the virus in late 2019, our scientists worked with extraordinary speed to develop tests to help detect the virus and enable clinicians to effectively diagnose people with COVID-19 - the disease caused by the virus."
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Roche data on file.
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