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Innovation to address unmet medical needs

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has demonstrated the impact of the biopharmaceutical industry’s performance in the area of innovation. Within a year, for example, a COVID-19 vaccine was developed, and the succeeding months showed biopharmaceutical companies scale up manufacturing for wider vaccines’ reach. Important treatment innovations for mild, moderate and severe cases were also developed and made available. As a result of these, millions of lives were saved.

The 11th annual Pharmaceutical Innovation and Invention Index (PII) listed the biopharmaceutical companies that are leading the way when it comes to invention and innovation in search for medicines and vaccines to address unmet medical needs.

The PII explained that not every act of invention is one of innovation. It defined innovation as the long-term realization of the value of an invention, and a foundation for future growth. A pharmaceutical invention means little if it can’t be leveraged in a way that provides value to patients and the public and the society as whole.

Among the companies that figured in the latest report were Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., Takeda, Roche, and Sanofi. Also in the list were GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna, Novo Nordisk, Bayer, Astellas, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eisai, Merck KGaA, Otsuka, and Novartis. These companies have developed, manufactured and made available vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, while at the same making headways in non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular, chronic respiratory illnesses, diabetes and cancer among others. Some of them also focused on the so-called rare diseases, or conditions that affect only a few in the population.

In the Novartis Annual Results Press Conference held this month, the Swiss company’s CEO Vas Narasimhan said that fewer than 10% of diseases known to affect humans are currently treatable. Globally, people also live an average of 10 years with a disease or disability. Yet new treatments broadly still reach only a fraction of eligible patients, and manageable conditions like heart disease cause millions of avoidable deaths each year.

In 2022, Novartis invested $10 billion in R&D; secured 23 approvals in the United States, European Union, China and Japan for new medicines and new indications for existing medicines. It is also conducting 44 ongoing Phase III programs in its development pipeline.

Meanwhile, it reached 54.6 million patients through access programs predominantly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Novartis Innovative Medicines and Novartis Global Health reached 290 million patients, while an additional 453 million patients were reached with its generic arm.

“Our performance in 2022 showed that we are making progress in addressing society’s greatest disease burdens,” Mr. Narasimhan said. “Our focus on cardiovascular diseases, for example, gives countries and healthcare systems solutions to address the world’s leading cause of death and disability.”

Novartis also reached R&D milestones in 2022. A positive Phase III readout was seen for an investigational first-in-class, oral medicine for the treatment of a rare and deadly disease in which the innate immune system destroys red blood cells.

As biopharmaceutical companies continue innovating for patients, the company is aware that millions around the world are still without proper access to healthcare. “Translating the latest science into lasting progress requires us to work with healthcare systems and other stakeholders to advance access for underserved patients in LMICs, while also tackling access barriers in some of the wealthiest countries in the world,” Mr. Narasimhan said.   

With this, Novartis was the first to sign up as a partner for the Access to Oncology Medicines (ATOM) Coalition, a global partnership launched by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) in 2022, The goal of this partnership is to increase access to quality-assured essential cancer medicines in low- and lower middle-income countries (LMICs),  and to help countries develop the capacity for their proper use. In the Philippines, the company implements various patient support programs to help patients gain access to innovative medicines for a number of diseases.

The PII said that an invention is all about ringing ideas or technologies together in a novel way to create something that did not exist before. On the other hand, innovation is the return on invention or the creation of meaningful value from invention.

From specific examples on how pharmaceutical inventions have reached, saved and improve patients’ lives, it is clear that these innovations have been addressing unmet medical needs for the benefit of patients and the society as a whole.

Teodoro B. Padilla is the executive director of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, which represents the biopharmaceutical medicine and vaccine industry in the country. Its members are in the forefront of research and development efforts for COVID-19 and other diseases that affect Filipinos.

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