Eighteen months ago, the global life sciences sector faced a humanitarian emergency which would claim more than 11,000 lives. At the peak of the Ebola crisis, the World Health Organization was predicting 10,000 new cases per day and survival rates were low. The world watched in horror as the disease ravaged West Africa.
When the first case was announced in December 2013, I do not think anyone could have foreseen its scale and intensity. After all, the virus was first discovered in 1976. Yet whilst the world speaks of ‘failings’ and ‘complacency’ in tackling the disease, I believe life sciences organizations should be praised and not shunned for their response.
In just a matter of months, vaccine development and clinical trials were fast-tracked. Ordinarily, this can last two or more years — not least because of the ethical issues involved when healthy people are immunized. Existing regulatory systems are not suited to the speed with which the health sector must respond to an outbreak. Yet where diseases such as Ebola are concerned, policymakers demand reactivity, and fast.
Innovation is a high-stakes affair in life sciences and a company’s ability to develop and bring to market a new treatment quickly can save thousands of lives. Getting that treatment wrong can have tragic consequences. This may help to explain why PA Consulting Group’s 2015 innovation study discovered that four out of five life sciences sector respondents (83%) say that innovation is core to their culture and mission – outperforming the innovation leader group by 12%. Clearly, businesses can learn from the life sciences sector and do more to adopt an innovative culture — one that is confident with risk-taking.
How organisations can stop wasting their best ideas
What the Ebola virus showed was that taking on high-risk innovation can reap rewards. But too many businesses are scared to take a bold step into the unknown and are preventing potentially brilliant ideas from making it to market. It is like saying you want to bungee jump but are afraid of heights.
Our innovation study revealed that 47% of respondents say they are not striving to be pioneers. How can we expect to combat the global productivity crisis if one in two organisations does not even aspire to radical new thinking?
When they do get a good idea, many businesses continue to view innovation as the responsibility of the R&D department and this severely limits their ability to develop breakthrough ideas. A siloed mentality to innovation is unlikely to succeed and UK organizations alone are flushing some £64.7 billion. ($94.7 billion) down the drain each year which is the equivalent to the global spend on cancer drugs (over $100 billion). If we are to succeed, we need to move beyond the R&D department and firmly embed innovation in the culture, strategy and mindset of organisations.
The life sciences sector’s answer to combat Ebola was developing a vaccine, VSV-EBOV, which proved to be spectacular. It delivered an efficacy of 100% with few side effects and was created in weeks. The outbreak focused the minds and attentions of the pharmaceuticals and biotechs, resulting in a number of drugs that are now in clinical trials.
In particular, there is substantial innovation in the area of cancer drugs. Regulators have recognised you cannot put people on trials for years when they have only got months to live. They are therefore fast-tracking potential breakthrough technologies. Bristol-Myers Squibb recently presented the outcomes of an international trial on 945 patients that found combined treatment with ipilimumab and nivolumab stopped advanced melanoma progressing for nearly a year in 58% of cases. Without the treatment, only 10% of patients would survive 12 months.
So why are there claims that those involved in the Ebola crisis ‘failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall’?  Yes, it is true that there are inadequacies in health-care systems in the three most-affected countries and I do not disagree that humanitarian and health agencies could collaborate better in the future. Crisis response is much less effective when there are parallel systems at play.
However, VSV-EBOV was a significant breakthrough in the Ebola battle and demonstrated the power of equitable international partnerships and flexibility. Necessity is the mother of innovation and entrepreneurs across the world should sit up and learn from this. Furthermore, the life sciences sector has since taken steps to turn innovative healthcare solutions into a reality.
Ebola showed that when innovation is truly integrated, we can enter into unknown territories and bring new innovations with us. The global life sciences sector has proven itself to be a truly superior innovator and if other businesses do not follow suit, they are in danger of sleepwalking into irrelevance.
Neil Saward is a life sciences expert at PA Consulting Group