Over the past year, the life sciences sector worldwide has worked incredibly hard on vaccines and treatments to fight the COVID-19 virus; the only way out of this pandemic. It is unprecedented that vaccination is happening as early as a year later. However, the development, production and distribution of the vaccines and other supplies needed in our fight against the virus has not been a smooth process so far. The global supply chain was seriously disrupted. In the Netherlands we are still experiencing this inconvenience on a daily basis. We are fighting the virus as effectively and as quickly as we can, but we are all aware that there is still room for improvement. Not only in the short term, to control COVID-19, but also in the (medium) long term to prevent future epidemics and pandemics.

During the Innovation for Health 2021 conference, Kadans Science Partner organized an expert session to explore how to create an even more powerful life sciences ecosystem in the Netherlands. Experts Ton Vries (Head of Innovation at Symeres, Chairman Life Cooperative and Managing director Health Ageing Campus), Annemiek Verkamman (Managing director HollandBIO) and René Buck (CEO Buck Consultants International) shared their views and discussed how to organize the ecosystem to prepare us for the next large-scale virus outbreak.

All experts agreed on the idea that we need to expand our medicine production facilities in The Netherlands. The Netherlands has had trouble scaling up production during the current pandemic. Annemiek Verkamman shared that while life sciences sector has developed vaccines in an unprecedented speed, scaling up on short notice again is not possible. Ton Vries agreed as it takes a long time to scale up, because capacity and protocols are needed. “To prepare for the future we need a long-term plan, this is not something we can do just by expanding production facilities, it should be a whole plan from the start, looking at critical medicines, then production” continued Vries. Even with more production capacity in the Netherlands, we wouldn’t be completely independent, according to René Buck. “Wherever you produce the vaccines at the end of the day, or where you fill and finish the vials, its is a global value chain. That is not going to change,” is what Buck said. Many operations are setup up abroad for a reason. For many years places like China and South-east Asia have been the manufacturing powerhouses of the world. To bring more of those activities to Europe would mean that a gap needs to be bridged. Buck shared that in order to increase preparedness and to have more certainty in the supply chain, costs will rise. “There is a price towards shorter supply chains”.

Nonetheless we should still scale up in the Netherlands according to Verkamman. “The whole sector is growing in the Netherlands. The number of start-ups and scale-ups is rising, so you need an ecosystem that fits your industry.” That means scaling up in every part of the ecosystem. Start-ups need financing and adequate research locations, such as incubators. Vries shared that if we can expand on facilities and ideas on campuses, we can bring more of production back to the Netherlands, to Europe. “We can make a difference, but we should start small and then expand to the whole chain” is what he said.

The question raised is whether government should be involved in securing they key raw materials needed for manufacturing medicines. Though the process is complex. In order to manufacture medicines, you need active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), which are often manufactured oversees using fine chemicals. Even before that there is the basic chemical industry. “If we all have to bring that back to Europe, we should do that, but we can’t do it in two years”, said Vries.

Buck likes this can-do mentality, but also states we should be realistic. “Excellent policy makers and excellent civil servants at ministries are not immediately the best crisis managers you can have”, Buck said. “You have to act, […] in a crisis you need more decisiveness, more focus.” Vries pleads for an upfront approach. “You make sure there are certain critical medicines available, that you can produce them here, but you will have to organize the whole value chain”. He also continues that companies are ready to invest in production facilities if on the other side the government will take on the obligation to purchase the product. Verkamman added: “Companies can act quite quickly, but you need some certainty about the process”.

While a lot is possible, everything comes at a cost as well as other investments. Verkamman observed a distance between the industry and the Ministry of Health. “There is a huge gap between how it works in the field and how it works on paper”. The industry can offer the government a can-do mentality, overseeing complex processes and indicating critical steps in finding a solution. Verkamman thinks the sector can reach out in form of an offer, instead of just pointing out what goes wrong. Vries said his company already reached out to the government. “That is the first step, you have to get in contact. You identify the players, looking into what is available, which companies can play a role and visualize the ecosystem.” Buck agrees that we need a more pro-business attitude.

Considering what is previously discussed, the ecosystem could, although interlinked, be divided into two parts: the R&D ecosystem and the production ecosystem. “We have unique companies that are doing the research for the pharmaceuticals. They can translate basic research to turn it into research directly suitable for production”, said Vries. Verkamman adds that HollandBIO sees a growing number of members active in this particular field, the new R&D services, which is quite unique for the Netherlands.

Concluding all three agree that the collaboration between the life sciences industry and the Dutch government can be improved. Verkamman pleads for short lines between the operations in companies and the policy makers in The Hague. “By working together, we can move quicker than we did last year”. Buck even takes it further than the Dutch government: “take that international mindset to see how you can do it.” He also said to keep on feeding the R&D ecosystem, as that is where new vaccines, new products, new medical treatments will come from. Vries adds that we need a team captain to identify what we currently have, how our research is organized and how we can move that into products.