Competition vs. Collaboration in Life Sciences in a Post-COVID World

There’s a misconception that life science companies are all in competition with each other and, when one of us makes a brilliant scientific discovery, we take all the credit for ourselves. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Collaboration is common in life sciences, and there’s also a (healthy) amount of competition.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen lots of examples of collaboration. As the world shut down because of COVID-19, it’s been “business as usual” for many of us life science professionals. We’re scaling up essential medicines and medical devices. We’re creating new therapeutics. We’re developing vaccines. Our marketing, human resources, leadership development, and operations teams, among others, are holding it all together. Many of us are still figuring out how to use Zoom.

And, in many ways, we’re all working together.

We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers, the superheroes the world needs right now. (We wear white coats, though, not skin-tight bodysuits.)..

We’ve Been Collaborating

scientist looking into microscope doing research on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines

Forget what you’ve heard about life science. Collaboration happens. All the time. Some people think that pharma companies are all about profit, but this isn’t the case. This is particularly evident right now.

We all have a common goal: A COVID-19 vaccine. Sometimes it feels like we’re searching for the holy grail, but we’re getting there. And collaboration is speeding up the process. Last month, GSK and Sanofi teamed up to collaborate on a vaccine. People normally think of these pharma companies as “competitors,” like the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, but, at the moment, we’re on the same team.

“As the world faces this unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone,”said Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson. “That is why Sanofi is continuing to complement its expertise and resources with our peers, such as GSK, to create and supply sufficient quantities of vaccines that will help stop this virus.”

There are lots of other examples of collaboration in life sciences, and sometimes this collaboration crosses borders:

“While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history,” says the New York Times. “Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.”

There’s some stuff we can’t collaborate on. Many clinical trials are on hold right now because it’s too difficult to social distance. (Fifty percent of life science companies have paused recruitment for trials.) And research and development labs are operating at 50 percent of capacity. But collaboration in life sciences is rife. And that’s the way it’s always been.

But There’s Competition Too

A research scientist's gloved hands holding a pipette testing for a coronavirus vaccine

Just like with any branch of science, there’s an element of competition in our industry. But this is beneficial, especially during the current crisis. Life science companies are in a race to develop drugs, vaccines, and other pharma products to fight (and hopefully eliminate) COVID-19. This kind of competition is healthy. It’s for the common good. Like any race, there has to be a winner — the first one past the finish line. (We’re waiting to see who will be Usain Bolt!)

As of this week, 23 companies are working on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. This list includes Gilead Sciences, Moderna, and loads of smaller biotech organizations. The competition is real!

There’s a difference between competition and selfishness, though. Life science companies should, within reason, share resources and data, especially when it comes to knowledge and hard science. Quick access to freely available resources can accelerate vital medical devices for COVID-19 patients, for example. And that would be a wonderful thing.

“Now more than ever, there is a need to promote openness in access to data, outcomes of research, and research infrastructure,” warns the World Economic Forum.

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