(Bloomberg) – Even the tens of millions of Covid tests Roche Holding AG is producing will not be enough this winter as infections rise in the northern hemisphere, CEO Severin Schwan said.
The Swiss giant is on track to produce more than 80 million rapid antigen tests per month by the end of this year, as well as the slower but highly accurate PCR tests it has been providing worldwide since January. But even that won’t meet demand amid continued supply bottlenecks, so health officials will need to continue to prioritize resources.
“We could sell a lot more if only we had the supplies,” Schwan said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “These are very complex systems, and you need a lot of things to bring them together.”
This will also be the momentum for the Covid-19 antibody cocktail therapy that Roche is helping to develop, which could gain regulatory approval “very soon,” Schwan said. The following excerpts from the interview have been condensed and edited.
What exactly does the coronavirus testing market look like to you?
The demand is far greater than the supply, and this is true for both PCR and antigen testing. I expect this to continue for a while until 2021, and that’s just because we have huge back orders, giving you enough visibility. You have long and complicated supply chains, so you need to work on bottlenecks simultaneously with all of your suppliers and with your internal setup, and that changes over time.
What exactly is missing?
If you fixed a bottleneck, you have another bottleneck, because as long as you are behind on orders, there is always a bottleneck. It can be any consumables, mining materials, plastic or glass parts you need. You discover all kinds of things that you wouldn’t even think about under normal circumstances. Because the system is so stressed, the things you’ve always taken for granted are suddenly scarce.
In terms of therapies, Roche is participating in the development and manufacture of the very promising two-antibody “cocktail” from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. To what extent would this therapy be widely available?
We plan to produce around 2 million doses, so demand will exceed supply by multiples. Governments and healthcare systems need to be very thoughtful about the priorities of these cocktails of antibodies. You need to target those with the highest risk of death. If we get to the right patients, we could dramatically reduce mortality.
One possible scenario is to sort patients who present with an infection based on risk factors. You would rather treat them early rather than wait until they reach a critical stage, because at that point, antibody therapy probably won’t help as much.
There has recently been encouraging data on vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna. How fast do you anticipate Covid vaccines to grow?
Hopefully we’ll see vaccines made available in the first half of the year, targeted to higher-risk patient populations – healthcare workers, for example – and then expand access in the second. semester. This will have an impact on the evolution of the pandemic, and it will determine the demand for tests on the one hand and therapeutics on the other. But we have to see how willing people are to get vaccinated and how effective vaccines are in different parts of the population. There are still unknowns here. Finally, scaling up vaccines for the world, so to speak, will take longer.
The two main vaccine candidates use messenger RNA technology, which is a clinical breakthrough for the approach. Do you think mRNA will have a big impact on other types of diseases?
What is clear is that mRNA can step in and trigger something in the immune system. It therefore potentially has a role wherever the immune system plays a role. This is obviously the case for cancer and perhaps in other fields such as neurology, the central nervous system, autoimmune and infectious diseases. But you have to be careful not to say, “We can just copy and paste things”. We know from experience that this does not work. It will take years to make this technology work for larger patient populations in different diseases.
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