The COVID-19 pandemic raised the media tsunami predicting dramatic disruptions that would facilitate shifts to digital technologies and change the world as we know it. Although not far from the reality, behind these immediate transformations to living and working online we might be also missing another revolution.
On May 13, McKinsey Global Institute released the report predicting how advancements in biological sciences would forever transform economies and societies, and emerge as major drivers of growth and development. Thus, the current pandemic could be the best illustration of the scientific advancements. The speed with which scientists sequenced the virus’s genome—weeks rather than months—bore witness to the new world of biology. It is, however, might be just the beginning of the major breakthrough that might follow.
McKinsey argues that the scale of direct and indirect impact of biological innovations could literally change the world as we now know it. For instance, as much as 60 percent of the physical inputs to the global economy could be produced biologically. Although around one-third of these inputs are biological materials (such as wood or cotton), the remaining two-thirds could be produced using innovative biological processes (for instance, bioplastics). In effect, the shifts could deliver the direct economic impact of up to $4 trillion a year over the next ten to 20 years. In addition to the traditional applications in health and medicine, more than half of this direct impact could be in outside domains such as agriculture and food, consumer products and services, and materials and energy production. This would likewise exercise a spillover effect and also impact other industries, disrupt existing supply chains and profoundly alter our perception of the biological sciences.
Biotech and pharma could receive an additional impetus for development because of a faster rebound. Although many industries experience significant cuts, most public companies have seen their share prices plummet and have to lay-off thousands employees, biotech and pharmaceutical companies turned out to be resilient.
Recent market data reflects strong growth indicators of major industry giants. Johnson & Johnson, with a market cap of $387 billion, announced in March that it has chosen a leading vaccine candidate for the virus and planning to deliver 1 billion vaccines next year. The company has also benefited tremendously from sales of consumer products like Tylenol and Zyrtec.
Another example is Pfizer. Worth $207 billion, the company launched a human trial of a coronavirus vaccine earlier this month and announced that it could produce millions of doses by the end of 2020 and hundreds of millions of doses by 2021. In effect, the companies are projected to show good growth indicators and underscore the resilience of the biotech industry and, most likely, highlight the strong long-term growth trajectory that would be accompanied by expanding R&D budgets.
Prior to the current outbreak, multiple reports pinpointed to the shifts in industry that promised new solutions beyond incremental improvements. In 2018, 19 of the 59 novel approved drugs were considered first-in-class, 34 received orphan designation for treating rare diseases. Emerging biopharma companies turned out as the major driving forces of innovations. In the post-pandemic world their work would most likely embrace new twists, and we would see more new solutions and novel ways of treating diseases.
The changes and emergence of new solutions could be also accelerated by the shifts in manufacturing. The recent reports indicated that more biotech companies started to increasingly adopt biomanufacturing as their preferred method of production. This could shorten the span between the development and production, and speed up the emergence of innovation. Furthermore, biomanufacturing could essentially establish high-performance bio-electronics as parts of smartphones, laptops and other vital electronics because of improved quality of services.
Although biology could significantly improve our lives, there are also significant risks. McKinsey warns that the self-sustaining, self-replicating, and interconnected nature of biology contains significant potential for disruption, which, if applied without strict adherence to ethical standards and concerns about the health of humans, could deliver lasting damage to both societies and economies. Needless to say that such risks should be taken especially serious in lights of the ongoing COVID-19 disruption.
The spread of harmful pathogens, however, could be just one of the examples of potential damages. In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he successfully used the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the DNA of two embryos before birth, hence, creating the first genetically modified humans. The experiment resulted in a nearly universal condemnation from the scientific community. Last year, the Chinese authorities convicted Jiankui for violating a government ban by carrying out his own experiments on human embryos.
But the experiment essentially showed that the mankind has approached the threshold that could separate our lives on before and after the revolution in the biological sciences. Many things that seemed as a plot of sci-fi films have been tacitly finding their ways to our daily lives. In effect, the example of He Jiankui might merely emerge as a pretext to more experiments and disruption that could rock the world in the upcoming years.
Rapid technological advancements deliver massive opportunities, but also threaten to deliver large-scale disruptions. It is impossible to stop the progress and the mankind should do everything possible to capitalize on the positive disruptions that would continue to take place at an accelerated pace in the upcoming years. It is, however, important to establish an effective framework that would supply the sufficient levels of protection. As a result, safety, adherence to ethics and understanding of the disruptive potential should be the foundation of any advancements in biological sciences.