State and health care leaders have done a tremendous job confronting the coronavirus pandemic and getting the state to a point where it can safely and slowly reopen the economy. Yet the future is still uncertain. Will the data continue to improve? Will there be another surge of COVID-19 infections in the fall? There are many questions that require more near-term planning, but the state’s foresight cannot stop there.
The only thing that will ultimately get us back to normal is an effective vaccine. Ensuring Massachusetts residents have widespread access when one is available requires state policy makers to think months and years ahead, starting now. And that’s no easy task. Government cannot do it alone, which is why the life sciences and health care industries in Massachusetts are considering a plan to quickly scale clinical trials, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines, in partnership with state leaders.
In Massachusetts, we are poised to succeed, through our experience in research, innovation, and breaking medical boundaries. Our health care system is world-class and remains the number one employer in the state. The biopharma sector comprises the premier life sciences cluster in the world. Looking back to the Great Recession of 2008, it was the partnership among academia, medical centers, life sciences, and government that ultimately helped the Massachusetts economy recover earlier than other states. This was achieved, with great help from the state, by leveraging our strengths, embracing collaboration, and redesigning the drug development model, and we must now do it again.
We’ve already seen the impact of such collaboration. Look no further than the current crisis, during which the health care community partnered with the life sciences sector to field thousands of donations of personal protective equipment for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Partnerships and alliances are widespread across health care organizations, research institutions, and the more than 80 Massachusetts life sciences companies that are working to develop new COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. Two of the eight clinical trials for vaccines are taking place in the United States, one vaccine candidate from a Massachusetts-headquartered company and another from a company with a major footprint in the state — both of which plan to manufacture much of the vaccine in the state.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough. We must also ensure Massachusetts has access to a vaccine when available, and that’s where early planning, engagement among the health care community, and purposeful political and public policy intervention are critical. We don’t have all the answers yet, and we’re not saying this will be easy, but we can start asking questions that must be addressed.
First, we should ask what policies should be deployed and expanded on to support our efforts to obtain and pioneer a vaccine, and what assets we have in the state that could be an advantage. Not only does Massachusetts already have the infrastructure for advanced drug development and world-class hospitals in which to run large clinical trials, but it is also a pioneer for new public policy innovations. For example, in January, Massachusetts General Hospital assembled a team of experts to lead the nation’s first FDA-approved Platform Trial for ALS, allowing the United States to dramatically rethink early-phase trials and to accelerate pathways to effective treatments. Platform Trials compare and test multiple drugs in a single trial, so adopting this model for COVID-19 vaccines could fast-track clinical trials for several candidates at once and allow for greater participation.
We should then ask what considerations need to be made from a financing standpoint, and how the state can effectively distribute a vaccine on a large scale in a short amount of time. In 2014, Massachusetts created the Vaccine Purchase Trust Fund, a public-private collaboration between the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Massachusetts’ health plans and vaccine manufacturers. The $70 million fund allows the state to bulk-purchase important pediatric vaccines at significantly discounted rates. As one of only nine states in the country with universal purchase policies in place, the Vaccine Purchase Trust Fund has helped the state’s health care system maintain one of the highest childhood vaccination rates in the country. This financing and purchasing mechanism could be expanded to include adult immunizations as well as to support COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
Massachusetts’ global connectivity as a world leader in life sciences and medical innovation is both a blessing and a curse. It is the reason the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately relies on the development and availability of an effective vaccine, but it’s also the reason the state may pull out of the pandemic earlier than other states. If it can leverage public-private partnerships to achieve critical population immunity through vaccination, and couple that with proper social distancing measures and contact tracing, the Massachusetts economy will recover faster, and with less long-term damage. Leaders need to start working on the plan now in order to get it right. If successful, Massachusetts will serve as a model for other states to adopt, just as we have for decades.
Bob Coughlin is president and CEO of MassBio. Steve Walsh is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association