If you are wondering how labs in other business sectors managed the challenges of the global pandemic, here’s a quick rundown of what others have been facing, some of the strategies they’ve adopted, and what their post-pandemic labs may look like.
Because we work closely with companies across a broad range of industries, we saw that some of these sectors faced significantly larger challenges over the last year.
- Contract Research/Manufacturing Organizations
CROs, CMOs, and CDMOs faced significantly increased demands in 2020, which have continued into the current year. While many projects across various stages were put on hold, research and development related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 became high-priority jobs with accelerated timelines. Tasks that previously required years to complete now needed to be handled in months.
Many labs responded by streamlining operations, developing new manufacturing technologies and rapid clinical development strategies. Once the crisis is past, many of these tools and processes are likely to be adapted to shorten future development timelines.
In a recent survey of industry leaders, one of the positive outcomes most commonly mentioned is an industry-wide increase in collaboration — between partners, regulators, academics, supply chain partners, and even competitors. 2020 saw a surge in the outsourcing of drug development and manufacturing to specialist CDMOs to speed development. As a result, many partner relationships have deepened and contract partners are being asked to do more. These are trends that are likely to continue after COVID-19, with the potential to open doors for other collaborative efforts in the future.
The need to halt the spread of outbreaks and virus mutations as quickly as possible led to a widespread use of risk-management techniques. For example, a number of critical projects were expedited and launched even before contracts were signed.
The need to protect workers had to be carefully balanced with the need to continue operations. In addition to the standard actions of implementing the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing where possible, there were numerous changes in work scheduling patterns to minimize contact. More off-site work drove demand for robust IT solutions.
One key result of this is that long-standing resistance to remote technologies has – to some extent – been overcome. While many lab tasks must still be performed on-site, 2020 has demonstrated that remote working and communication are viable for many applications, potentially including site visits and audits. Remote viewing and virtual interaction technology such as Google Glass or wireless headsets have been implemented at many sites, and may continue to see some use in the future.
A related development has been the further decentralization of clinical trials. What began as a short-term expediency has demonstrated numerous advantages, including faster enrollment, greater patient retention, and higher-quality real-world data.
For many biobanks, operations initially ceased altogether in response to lockdowns, with equipment being monitored remotely or via occasional onsite visits. While many research efforts were halted indefinitely, it was still necessary to keep low-temperature storage units running in order to maintain temperatures of -25°C or -80°C in order to preserve specimens. In a recent international survey of biobanking leaders, some sites reported difficulty obtaining liquid nitrogen and other critical supplies.
The situation was vastly different for those biobanking operations with the capability to handle samples of infectious diseases – many of which were enlisted into COVID-19 testing and research efforts. This sometimes involved the conversion of facilities established for other types of research, often in as little as a week. In some locations, samples were collected during the day, then delivered to facilities for testing by workers who had been shifted to nighttime hours. As with all medical facilities during the pandemic, these efforts also required enhanced safety measures, including mask requirements, social distancing, greater use of handwashing and hand sanitizer, and so on.
Other facilities remained operational to handle the ongoing needs of routine testing for conditions other than COVID-19. Even in these facilities, the possibility that organic samples might have been infected with the virus often led staff to wear PPE and take other precautions as if they were handling coronavirus samples.
At the same time, restrictions on nonessential surgeries, led to periods with significant declines in demand for sample analysis. These and other factors served to strain the financial resources of many facilities. Lockdowns, travel restrictions and fears of infection also led to a significant decrease in biobank participation.
Despite these challenges, many of the experts surveyed also noted short- and long-term benefits that have resulted from 2020. The pandemic has clearly been a wake-up call for the industry, leading to the reinforcement of supply chains, more robust emergency plans, and a greater appreciation of the need for redundancy. The need to work remotely has led to stronger data management and security infrastructures, and the need for robust informatics.
Equally as important, more patients are aware of biobanking…and more are willing to participate in research that could result in effective treatments or vaccines.
- Oil & Gas
With COVID-19, the oil and gas industry was forced to confront its third price collapse in a little more than a decade. With prices near 30 year lows, increasing societal pressures to support green energy alternatives and collapsing demand in 2020 due to pandemic lockdowns, oil and gas producers are facing “what was already shaping up to be one of the industry’s most transformative moments.”
McKinsey’s report (Oil and gas after COVID-19: The day of reckoning or a new age of opportunity?) described the challenges of 2020 for the industry:
“The immediate effects are already staggering: companies must figure out how to operate safely as infection spreads and how to deal with full storage, prices falling below cash costs for some operators, and capital markets closing for all but the largest players.”
As the pandemic fades into the background, the industry is expected to post some degree of recovery, and efficiency will likely become increasingly important to the sector. Digital transformation and innovation will be central to these efforts, as companies seek to leverage technology, digital resources such as informatics, and analytics to improve operating margins.
- Food and Beverage
The outbreak of the pandemic turned the Food and Beverage industry on its head practically overnight. According to a recent report by Deloitte, in-home consumption spiked over a period of just two weeks, while out-of-home consumption came to a complete standstill.
This had an immediate impact on the profits of the industry, since out-of-home sales have historically generated the highest margins. Additional challenges resulted from declines in agricultural output, plus supply chain disruptions resulting from rapid changes in consumer behavior and demand.
Food and beverage labs saw many of the same issues arise as others did during COVID-19, including the need to accommodate remote workers. This has led to a rash of interest in SaaS informatics solutions (along with concerns about cybersecurity – another big topic in 2020).
A central theme across all industries in 2020 was the rapid adoption of solutions which took companies – willingly or unwillingly – along the path of digital transformation. 2020 was the year in which the pandemic forced the issue, driving demand for digitally transformed enterprises in which disparate business systems became integrated, data flowed in real-time and access was extended remotely across the globe.