Global Head of Partnering, Roche Diagnostics
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.
At Roche, we have a vital responsibility as a healthcare company to help overcome the pandemic. We’re working to support countries in managing COVID-19 by helping to track the spread of the virus, providing tools that help diagnose patients so that they may receive the appropriate treatments and are able to return to their normal lives’ more quickly. Employees from across the business are still heavily involved in the COVID-19 response as it continues to evolve. Our aim is to help reduce the spread of the virus, and ultimately to reduce the need for patients to be hospitalised.
We’re fast approaching two years since the first cases of a novel coronavirus were reported. 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 begin to navigate our new normal, together.
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 patients who were severely ill.
Once we were notified that one of our therapies was being used off-label to treat patients 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.
There is an unparalleled global effort to launch testing options and clinical trials, as swiftly and safely as possible.
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.3
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 patients in early COVID-19 vaccine trials.4
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.
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.6
Pivotal new data reveal that almost one in three individuals infected with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic.7
Roche intensifies its response, exploring partnerships with academia, governments, and other health bodies, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, as well as supporting independent treatment research efforts.8 By working closely with our industry partner, Gilead Sciences, another clinical trial is initiated in COVID-19.3
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.
As the global need to urgently scale-up testing in resource-limited settings intensifies, Roche diagnostics partnered with SD Biosensor to launch 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.3
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 patients 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 patients around the world faster. With this in mind, we partnered with Regeneron to develop and supply another treatment option that was in clinical trials.
The number of COVID-19 cases rising globally brings increased pressure on healthcare systems to cope with soaring demand. To help meet this need, Roche launches an antigen test that is conducted in the laboratory to help determine whether a person is currently infected with COVID-19.3
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.11 Regulatory bodies work around the clock to evaluate the data and secure approvals.
By the end of the year, the United Kingdom becomes the first country in Europe to begin rolling out its vaccination programme.12
As COVID-19 evolves, it was clear that a multi-pronged approach including vaccines, testing, and multiple treatments, was needed to combat this virus and to allow people around the world to resume daily life more quickly. To this end, Atea partnered with Roche to support the development and manufacturing of our investigational COVID-19 treatment.
As 42 countries roll out their COVID-19 vaccination programmes, multiple governments begin identifying viral variants of concern.14
At a time when most of Europe is 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.
In the month to follow, new data on the use of one of our investigational COVID-19 treatment options is announced, contributing to our understanding of the disease.3
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.
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 patients to experience 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 patients.
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 for patients.
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 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 patients 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, and our partners release new clinical trial data in COVID-19.3
In less than two years, unparalleled collaboration and innovation in global healthcare has spearheaded the development of numerous COVID-19 diagnostic tools, investigational treatment options, and vaccinations. As we look towards a new normal, Roche stands together with all those working tirelessly to overcome the pandemic.
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 to improve 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 help prevent severe illness and ultimately save lives.
To support local pandemic responses, we are working with healthcare professionals, laboratories, health authorities and organisations worldwide as COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly. Our continued research into testing options aims to limit the impact of this and future pandemics.
It goes without saying that we’re fully committed to ensuring the development of new COVID-19 treatments that suit patients’ evolving needs. We continue to strive to reduce the spread of the disease, limit hospitalisations and help prevent serious and life-threatening complications. As we do this, one thing is clear: we are stronger together.
In the race to detect and treat COVID-19, biotech, government and academia are joining forces to battle a disease that knows no borders.more
This clinical trial had to start quickly to test if an old Roche drug helped serious COVID-19 patients. A Roche veteran is coordinating these efforts.more