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Pandemic may spark strong international links in supply chain

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AstraZeneca Senior Vice President Andy Wirths spoke on a panel at University of Delaware Monday, hoping that regulatory bodies and the private sector can continue to work in tandem for supply chain support and other treatments beyond COVID-19. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

NEWARK — It’s been 20 months since COVID-19 has rocked the world, but top biopharmaceutical leaders, Delaware leadership and European Union delegates are optimistic that one lesson may outlast the pandemic: collaboration, rather than competition, on cutting-edge treatments benefits all.

It’s a hard-learned lesson, after enduring the beginning of the pandemic where all nations were fighting over ventilators and face masks to stockpile. Ambassador of Slovenia Tone Kajzer remembers those days in spring 2020 as a “medieval time in Europe.

“We saw the virus came like an avalanche, and we discovered our warehouses were empty, we don’t have masks and we aren’t producing respirators,” Kajzer said Monday morning. “For a time, Europe really shrunk back… we are beyond this and working closely. But I do think it is a reflection of the counties in a multilateral system. We need more efficient multilateral systems, and we need them to be transparent.”

EU ambassadors arrived in Delaware for the first time on Monday as part of a goodwill gesture to highlight the state’s position in the national economy, and four of the 27 ambassadors stopped at the University of Delaware STAR Campus to discuss the role that the international supply chain held while the world fought COVID-19.

The stay-at-home order and non-essential business shut down last spring was not just limited to America, it spanned across the Atlantic Ocean and in Europe. In fact, one of the first orders the EU issued was a declaration to keep open the exports of food to other countries. It was the first issue of many to come from shutting trade channels and borders virtually overnight and gradually reopening them.

“We have come a long way to cooperate. Maybe we don’t provide meaningful solutions to people, but we do provide the environment for it,” Ambassador of Italy Mariangela Zappia said. “And it’s clear that cooperation is more fruitful when you share the same values, and share the same way of getting out of a situation like this.”

Many countries, like the United States, shrunk its economy last year but have seen a rebound. The United States shrunk 3.5% in 2020, while Italy shrunk by 5.4%. On the other side of the coin, Ireland saw its economy grow by 2% by the end of last year, due to the support of global trade, reported Ambassador Daniel Mulhall.

“Exports were up by 5% because ours is forced heavily in pharmaceuticals, medical technology and IT products and those were in high demand,” Mulhall said. “Thirty percent went to the United States on a perfect, reliable path. In a way, it proves that if a pandemic didn’t disrupt it, nothing will ever disrupt trade with the United States.”

The ambassadors were unsure when the supply chain would hold stable for household goods again, but they were confident that vaccines were still the clear way to end the global pandemic and return to life before. Some of the COVID-19 vaccines are a product of international trade themselves. 

The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is made with 280 materials from 86 suppliers in 19 countries; the company expanded manufacturing sites in Belgium and Michigan to provide $3 billion worth of the vaccine by the end of 2021.

In recorded comments to the ambassador, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla noted that transatlantic collaboration has been the best antidote to COVID-19. Pfizer itself is working with Israeli leadership to track the immunization data from the third booster shot. President Joe Biden and his administration bought 1 billion doses of the vaccine at a not-for-profit price in order to donate to  lower-middle-income countries and the 55 member states of the African Union.

“The single most important thing any government can do for the seamless delivery of critical medical goods is to support measures that support the free movement of goods and supplies across the border,” Bourla said. “I ask you to embrace the spirit of collaboration and innovation that yielded such exceptional results [in the vaccine]. Doing so will allow us to apply the lessons learned to tackle other diseases and prepare for future pandemics.”

AstraZeneca Senior Vice President Andy Wirths echoed that sentiment, noting that at least five vaccines and several antibody tests were created in record time, not only due to work from the private sector but also regulatory bodies cutting through significant red tape.

“The next challenge will be how do we take what we learned from COVID and make it work. We learned how to work, not just in Zoom, but when time was of the essence. How do we capture that pace in efficiency?” Wirths asked. “COVID was a great unifier.”

Delaware Bioscience Association President Michael Fleming noted that 300 universities and bioscience companies moved in lockstep to deliver millions of doses this year, including small innovators working with large corporations. When it comes to novel antivirals and therapeutics, Fleming noted a similar tactic may be used to get manufacturing up to scale.

“We also need to make sure the labor is there. Delaware is benefiting from global companies expanding here, but if we can’t provide the thousands of trained workers to meet the ever-increasing needs of manufacturing, it will be an issue,” Fleming said. “We learned the risks of consolidating critical materials in the supply chain in certain parts of the world.”

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