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There are positive indications for future growth.
Each year Pharmaceutical Technology® and Pharmaceutical Technology Europe® survey audience members to see what has remained the same and what has shifted, regarding pharmaceutical workforce attitudes toward their jobs, their current employers, and the general direction the industry is heading. The industry’s response to COVID-19 has had the most significant measurable impact on the way both business and manufacturing processes were managed in the past two or three surveys. In 2023, the largest observable shift was brought about by the steady emergence of advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMPs). The last half of 2023 was a watershed moment for pharmaceuticals, given the industry saw the first set of approvals for gene edited therapies, as well as for a self-amplifying messenger RNA vaccine. But everyone experienced the year through the lens of the products and activities their own company sells. In this way, one can say of pharmaceutical manufacture, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (1). Let’s examine survey responses to see what these differences might be founded upon (2). There is a gulf between survey responses such as “struggling industry full of scientific brains lacking leadership, mentoring, and training” or “Party’s over–hunker down, folks,” to “Aside from a few ‘deplorables’, the industry is in good condition’’, “volatile, encouraging, innovative, nerve-wracking”, or “Incredible advances and treatment options.”
As the sugar rush of COVID-19 response funding wore off, so too did the number of hours workers put in on average. Hours worked returned to pre-pandemic levels, based on earlier survey results (see Figures 1, 2). This finding was somewhat surprising given conversations held during conferences, but there was perhaps some confirmation bias during conferences, versus survey results. It’s easier in a survey to say ‘I’m not working as hard’ compared with a network contact you are used to doing business with. The final question of the survey asks, “If you could describe the 2023 bio/pharma industry in five words or fewer, what would you say?” And this is where the quote from Tolstoy can most readily be explored.
Opinions about the post-pandemic industry were largely positively oriented, from “post-COVID readjustment” and “the 2023 bio/pharma industry has benefitted greatly from covid restrictions.” Responses ranged from “consolidation after covid pandemic rush” to “Great come back after covid.” But some were bleak in their appraisal, with “Pandemic stress, Supply chain collapse” and “Post-pandemic blues” being somewhat frequent responses.
Naturally, one can suppose the technologies and services most involved in the pandemic response, such as vaccine manufacture and distribution, were/are the respondents going through the deepest readjustment phase. One of the features of the pandemic was that it forced everyone to communicate more quickly, clearly, and completely. This seems to have remained.
Karolina Makovskyte, head of Business Development at Caszyme, said, “One positive aspect of CRISPR-Cas technology is the emergence of a more active dialogue about gene editing regulations, particularly in Europe. It is also somewhat linked to another positive aspect, which is increased exploration of the technology by new industries, seeking ways to integrate CRISPR-Cas into their activities.”
Satisfaction with pay in 2023 didn’t move to any great degree versus historical years (see Figure 3). Perhaps the timing of the survey influenced a type of survival-driven satisfaction, as the last half of the year saw several companies markedly reduce workforce numbers as part of restructuring efforts. Pfizer axed approximately 900 staff, as their Covid vaccine reported $1.31 billion in sales, a 70% decline from the year before. “Wall Street had expected $1.53 in revenue. Paxlovid suffered an even sharper drop, with revenue of just $202 million—97% down from last year” (3). Not a big reduction but still significant for a company that sold $100 Billion in product for the first time in 2022. Grifols, a Spanish company specializing in blood plasma therapies, trimmed its operations in the United States by cutting approximately 2300 positions (which amounts to approximately 8.5% of its global workforce). Takeda braced for competitive threats with cuts of nearly 1400 staff, to prepare for generic competition to its diabetes drug Actos. Thermo Fisher Scientific adjusted to changing demands through a series of workforce cuts totally nearly 1300 staff, mainly due to decreased demand for COVID-19 testing products and “evolving economic conditions.” Genentech, Biogen, Catalent, and Amgen also witnessed significant workforce diminutions, while Novavax, Emergent BioSolutions, and Bristol Myers Squibb, round out the list (4).
As can be seen from Figure 4, job security hit its highest levels during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the survey questions don’t allow enough depth to explored in detail, going back to the Tolstoy metaphor, the workers feeling most secure are likely the staff working on the most promising new advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMPs), as this is clearly where the excitement and major new investments are being ploughed into. For example, RoslinCT will manufacture Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ CRISPR-based gene therapy, Casgevy, recently approved for treating sickle cell disease and β thalassemia (5). Novo Nordisk is also planning a US$2.3 billion investment in new French facilities, partly to facilitate extra capacity for glucagon-like peptide-1 products (6). One of the survey respondents summed up the entire industry with the words “Sustained growth with new therapies” while another simply stated “Vaccines, proteins, blood, tissues.”
Similarly, optimism about future performance was also peaked during the pandemic.Somewhat alluding to the Tolstoy metaphor and also the COVID-19 sugar rush, Barbara Ryan, founder, Barbara Ryan Advisors commented, “It is interesting, however, because the market remains highly bifurcated—companies with good data are able to finance, and often the aftermarket performance is quite positive, as the deals are viewed as a clearing-event lifting the financing overhang. As of press time, there had only been 11 biotech IPOs this year, in contrast to more than 100 each in 2020 and 2021. Sadly, however, too many companies went public in 2020 and 2021 that were at a far-too-early stage in their development (i.e., preclinical, Phase I trials) to be public companies; they were not sufficiently funded to proof-of-concept data. This is where the real pain is” (7). Ryan went on to round out her assessment of the industry, ending on a highly positive note. “The innovation renaissance is alive and well, with record numbers of FDA new drug approvals in each of the past several years. M&A continues to be another bright spot. Beginning in 2025, large pharma will be losing exclusivity for products currently representing over $350 billion in revenue, leaving a huge growth gap that needs to be filled through M&As, licensing, and partnering. Dealmaking has always been a key pillar of the industry’s growth strategies. More good news: according to EY’s Annual Fire Power Report, large pharma has a record $1.4 trillion to fund deals. There have been a total of 30 public biotech acquisitions this year, and 15 of these were above $1 billion each, which surpasses the number in any year for the past 10. As we wind down 2023, the hope will be for rate relief in the year ahead—and substantially improved biotech performance.”And as if on que, the Federal Reserve just suggested three cuts to interest rates in 2024, sending the DOW into record territory by rising 1.4%, to close at 37,090.24 (8).
Chris Spivey is the editorial director of Pharmaceutical Technology.
Volume 48, No. 1
When referring to this article, please cite it as Spivey, C. New Therapies Cry Out for New Skills. Pharmaceutical Technology 2024 48 (1) 16–19.