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by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Anti-Obesity Drugs – Pharma Companies Race to Grab a Bite of the Pie

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For many years, bariatric surgery has been the go-to option for people struggling with obesity and obesity-induced conditions. However, for the last couple of years, another easier option has become available in the form of GLP-1-based weight loss drugs. This class of medicine mimics a hormone that helps reduce food intake and control appetite. These drugs have revolutionized the weight loss market, which was previously dominated by gimmicky and fad-based OTC solutions. Due to GLP-1’s proven effectiveness, there is soaring demand for these drugs, outstripping its current supply capacity. While only two players operate in this market, several leading drugmakers have been racing to develop their own version of the drug. Moreover, with additional proven merits of the drug beyond just weight loss, it has become more appealing for pharma players to invest in.

GLP-1 anti-obesity drugs make big waves in the pharmaceutical sector

Over the past few years, anti-obesity drugs have received immense attention from healthcare professionals, pharmaceutical companies, and the general public. A new class of medication that stands out is glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists, traditionally used for treating Type 2 diabetes. But along with managing diabetes, these drugs also suppress appetite and lower calorie intake by mimicking the GLP-1 hormone (a gastrointestinal hormone), which causes the patient to feel fuller longer and thereby prevents overconsumption. Regular intake of such drugs is deemed to result in a weight loss of about 15-25% of body weight in obese people.

GLP-1 agonists received FDA approval as anti-obesity drugs in 2021. Given their promising results, the demand for these drugs has increased immensely. However, despite the patient’s high out-of-pocket price of US$1,000 plus, there are severe shortages in the market.

Anti-Obesity Drugs – Pharma Companies Race to Grab a Bite of the Pie by EOS Intelligence

Anti-Obesity Drugs – Pharma Companies Race to Grab a Bite of the Pie by EOS Intelligence

Only two players operate in this highly-coveted market

The GLP-1-based medication is now marketed in two categories – one for managing diabetes and blood sugar levels and the other as a weight loss drug. The GLP-1-based weight loss drug market is highly consolidated, as only two players operate in this space. These are Denmark-based Novo Nordisk and US-based Eli Lilly.

Novo Nordisk, the market leader, received FDA approval for its weight loss injectable, Wegovy, in June 2021. This drug uses the same active ingredient as Novo Nordisk’s diabetes drugs, Ozempic and Rybelsus (oral); however, it has a different dosage and can also be used for weight loss in patients who do not have diabetes. That being said, Ozempic has also been used off-label for weight loss.

On the other hand, Eli Lilly’s injectable drug for weight loss, Zepbound, received FDA approval in November 2023. Eli Lilly’s glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide – GIP/GLP-1 injectable drug for diabetes, Mounjaro, has the same composition and dosage as Zepbound and is often prescribed off-label for weight loss as well.

While Novo Nordisk’s drugs, which use semaglutide as an active ingredient, result in weight loss of about 13 to 22 lbs, the drugs by Eli Lilly have tirzepatide as an active ingredient. They are stated to result in a weight loss ranging between 15 and 28 lbs.

From a price-point perspective, Wegovy has an out-of-pocket cost of US$1,349 per month, compared to Zepbound, which has an out-of-pocket cost of US$1,060 per month. Thus, while Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy has the first-mover advantage, Eli Lilly’s Zepbound is considered more effective and better priced.

Currently, both weight loss drugs by Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly come in the form of injectables. However, both companies are developing oral versions of the drug as they are easier to administer and more convenient to prescribe. They may also help ease supply constraints currently impacting the injectables. In June 2023, Novo Nordisk conducted Phase 3 trials for its once-daily oral Wegovy drug, according to which the drug helped obese adults lose about 15% of their body weight. Similarly, in June 2023, Eli Lilly conducted Phase 2 trials for its oral GLP-1 receptor for weight loss. The drug helped obese adults lose up to 14.7% of their body weight. Both companies are optimistic about the outcomes of their trials; however, the expected launch timelines for these drugs have yet to be determined.

Leading drugmakers race to compete in the growing anti-obesity drug market

Currently, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are the only two players operating in this market. However, several other leading pharmaceutical players have joined the race and are working towards developing their own version of the drug, either through in-house R&D or through strategic acquisitions.

Moreover, they are targeting their research towards developing and marketing a new generation of GLP-1-based medications that are administered orally, are longer lasting, and have additional health benefits and limited side effects.

In February 2024, US-based biopharmaceutical company Amgen successfully completed a Phase 1 clinical trial for its GLP-1 agonist drug, MariTide. As per the trials, the drug produced a 14.5% weight loss in patients administered the highest dose. Moreover, the company claims that the trial indicates that patients may need to take less frequent doses of MariTide (compared with current competition), and the weight loss achieved stays significantly longer. The company has begun its Phase 2 trial, with results expected by late 2024.

In December 2023, Swiss-pharmaceutical giant Roche acquired US-based Carmot for US$3.1 billion (US$2.7 billion upfront cash and US$400 million on certain milestones). This acquisition has helped put Roche on the map for obesity drug development. Carmot has two GLP-1 agonist molecules for weight loss, which are currently being tested in the mid to advanced stages of clinical trials. The first drug, CT-388, is a once-weekly injectable and has completed Phase 1 clinical trial, while the other drug, CT-996, is an oral drug currently undergoing Phase 1 trials.

In November 2023, UK drugmaker AstraZeneca entered into an agreement with Shanghai-based Eccogene, wherein the former licensed an oral once-daily GLP-1 receptor agonist called ECC5004 for the treatment of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other cardiometabolic conditions. For this, AstraZeneca agreed to pay Eccogene an upfront fee of US$185 million for the drug and a further payment of US$1.83 billion in future clinical, regulatory, and commercial milestones and tiered royalties. The drug is currently in Phase 1 development, and the company hopes to enter Phase 2 of clinical studies by the end of 2024. In the past, AstraZeneca stopped the development of two GLP-1 agonist drugs that were being developed in-house. The development of an injectable called Cotadutide was halted in April 2023, and an oral drug called AZD0186 was halted in June 2023 after their respective Phase 2b and Phase 1 clinical trials did not yield the desired results.

Pfizer, one of the most active companies in this regard, has faced multiple failures in their endeavor to develop a competitive obesity drug. In 2020, it started a clinical trial for its GLP-1 agonist weight loss drug, Lotiglipron. However, in June 2023, the company stopped developing the drug after its Phase 1 and Phase 2 drug interaction studies indicated a rise in liver enzymes in patients who took the drug once a day. In 2021, the company simultaneously began working on another GLP-1 receptor agonist, Danuglipron, which was to be taken twice daily. While the Phase 2a trial for the drug in June 2023 showed promise, the company halted the development of the drug post its Phase 2b trial in December 2023. The drug was scrapped as, despite significant weight loss, the trial patients experienced high rates of common gastrointestinal and mechanism-based adverse side effects. The company is now conducting a pharmacokinetic study with a once-daily version of the Danuglipron drug that will provide guidance on future development plans.

Pfizer’s failure with these two drugs demonstrates the struggle the leading pharma companies face to develop a safe, effective, and tolerable GLP-1 agonist for weight loss.

GLP-1 agonist drugs have benefits beyond diabetes and weight loss

Despite multiple setbacks, leading pharma companies are investing heavily in this space, as they understand the potential of these drugs. While currently, GLP-1 agonists are poised as diabetes and weight loss drugs, they have far more benefits. Data from ongoing clinical trials and independent studies suggest that GLP-1 agonists also help improve cardiovascular health and kidney function and help treat addiction and dementia.

In March 2024, Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy received FDA approval for reducing the risk of serious cardiovascular complications in adults with obesity and heart disease. This is based on the results shared from the company’s three-phase trial SELECT, which indicated that Wegovy reduced patients’ risk of major cardiovascular problems by about 20% during the five-year trial period.

Similarly, in 2019, the company started another clinical trial, FLOW, to determine the impact of GLP-1 agonists on kidney function. As per the interim results in October 2023, the trial displayed that Ozempic (Wegovy’s diabetes counterpart) reduced the risk of kidney disease progression and kidney and cardiovascular death in diabetes patients by 24%. Given its success, the company has halted the trial at the interim stage.

An initial study conducted on animals in March 2023 reportedly showed positive results for curbing addictive tendencies, such as drinking and smoking, with Ozempic. Currently, two trials are being undertaken to validate the use of GLP-1 agonists in humans to manage drug and alcohol addiction. Given the testimonies from current users of the drug, it is indicative that the drug has been helping users curb their addictions.

In addition to this, several researchers are also suggesting that GLP-1 could be used in the treatment of dementia and other cognitive disorders. This is based on the claim that GLP-1 agonists reduce the build-up of two proteins, amyloid, and tau, in the brain. These two proteins are known to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. In February 2022, a new trial at the University of Oxford was initiated to test people with high levels of amyloid and tau and at risk of developing dementia to determine if the use of GLP-1 agonists would result in a reduction in tau accumulation and brain inflammation. The interim results from the study have not yet been disclosed.

High prices and limited coverage pose as speedbumps for obesity drug adoption

While these obesity drugs have exploded in popularity in recent times and are only expected to grow further as their case use increases, they do have certain shortcomings and challenges that are important to address.

These drugs are known to cause several side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, and ulcers. They can also lead to severe complications, such as pancreatitis, in some extreme cases. While most of the common side effects of the drugs are manageable and justifiable given the risk-benefit ratio, one of the key issues with the drugs is that they need to be taken in perpetuity to keep the weight off. In other words, once a patient stops taking the drugs, the weight comes back. Given that these drugs are priced at more than US$1,000 per month at the moment, taking them constantly becomes a considerable challenge for patients.

Moreover, considered as ‘vanity-use’, these drugs are currently not covered by most medical insurance policies, and thus, patients have to pay for them out-of-pocket. While several employers in the USA are considering including these drugs in their health plans, they are still debating their merit. Employers acknowledge the benefits of these drugs as they help employees who battle with obesity improve their health and, in turn, improve overall performance and employee satisfaction. However, high costs and long-term use act as definite barriers, which make both employers and insurers reluctant to cover these drugs.

Insurers are slowly warming up to the inclusion of GLP-1 drugs in their plans

In March 2024, leading insurance company Cigna stated that it would expand insurance coverage to include weight loss drugs but would limit how much health plans and employers spend on the drug each year. As per Cigna’s benefits management unit, Evernorth Health Services, spending increases for these weight loss and diabetes drugs would be limited to a maximum of 15% annually. The plan offers a financial guarantee and enables employers and health plans to have greater predictability and control over their GLP-1 spending by offering clients (employers) a guarantee that the cost of weight loss and diabetes drugs would not increase by more than 15% annually.

As a part of the effort to limit how much employers spend on GLP-1-based drugs annually, Evernorth has entered into an agreement with Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly. However, the details of the agreement have not been disclosed.

While this is a good start, the drug would need better coverage by many other insurance players to reach a wider audience.

EOS Perspective

Given that about 12% of the global population and more than 40% of the American population grapple with obesity (as per WHO and 2022 statistics by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, USA, respectively), weight loss drug manufacturers Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are sitting on pharma goldmines. The weight loss drugs market, expected to reach US$100 billion by 2030, is poised as one of the most promising sectors for the pharma sector. Thus, it is no surprise that several leading players are investing heavily to join Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly at the top, either through in-house R&D or through acquisitions.

However, developing these drugs proves to be challenging for drugmakers, as evidenced by the failures of several companies in creating their own versions. We can expect the sector to consolidate further as larger pharma companies look to acquire niche players with their trials being in advanced stages.

Moreover, in a bid to find their footing in this promising sector, pharma players are trying to develop advanced versions of the drug that have benefits beyond just weight loss and offer long-term benefits. This is also because, at the moment, these drugs are not approved by most insurance companies, which makes them extremely expensive for the wider population to afford. This, in turn, is withholding these drugs from becoming mainstream and is thereby preventing them from tapping into their true growth potential. That being said, Wegovy’s recent FDA approval for reducing cardiac complications in people with obesity and heart disease will likely tip the insurers’ coverage scales. Insurance companies are likely to cover the drug in the near future.

Since no other drug in the market offers proven cardiac benefits along with weight loss (including Eli Lilly’s), it is safe to say that Novo Nordisk is way ahead in the race and will dominate the market for the foreseeable future. Thus, to be able to compete in the market, it is not enough for drugmakers to develop obesity drugs offering just weight benefits. They would need to develop drugs that offer higher efficiency or additional therapeutic benefits along with weight loss and price them competitively.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: PFA – A Potential Paradigm Shift in Atrial Fibrillation Ablation Landscape

Pulsed Field Ablation (PFA) is an emerging technology for treating atrial fibrillation (AFib), a form of irregular heartbeat affecting 40 million heart patients worldwide as of 2023. As the prevalence of AFib is increasing, all eyes are on this novel, minimally invasive technology that offers improved effectiveness, safety, and shorter procedure and recovery time compared to the existing thermal ablation procedures.

PFA applies short, high-voltage pulses of energy to cardiac tissue and is proven to be more precise and safe than the thermal ablation methods, which come with the risk of damaging collateral tissues.

A clinical trial conducted by Medtronic across North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan during 2022-2023 revealed that the efficacy performance of its PFA system PulseSelect stood at 66% in paroxysmal and 55% in persistent AFib patients against the pre-specified performance goals of >50% (paroxysmal) and >40% (persistent). Performance goals were set based on multiple studies conducted on thermal ablation procedures that evaluated efficacy based on the freedom from acute procedural failure and arrhythmia recurrence in one year.

Despite promising results, the first-generation PFA technology still needs improvement in targeting the tissue of interest, and players in the field are developing supportive systems such as mapping systems to improve performance.

PFA emerges as a better alternative to conventional ablation methods

PFA is viewed as the best evolution within the electrophysiology (EP) space (comprises ablation catheters, diagnostic catheters, laboratory devices, and access systems used to treat arrhythmia). The tissue-targeting approach of PFA overcomes the drawbacks of thermal ablation methods, such as extensive scarring and the risks of injuring nearby organs. Along with improving clinical outcomes, this transformative technology will significantly improve patient experience and reduce the cost of care by lowering procedure and recovery time.

Being safer than other ablation methods, PFA is set to become the preferred modality

Only about 2% of the eligible patients with AFib globally and 15% of the eligible patients in the USA were treated with ablation as of February 2023, according to a MedTech analyst at Bank of America. This is because thermal ablation comes with the risk of damaging nearby issues, which can lead to damage to the esophagus, phrenic nerve, and pulmonary veins.

A study published by the European Heart Rhythm Association in January 2024 comparing the outcomes of PFA and thermal ablations stated that the risk of injury from PFA was 3.4% compared to 5.5% in thermal ablation. PFA, being safer than thermal ablation, can be expected to reach many more eligible patients. After the launch of Boston Scientific’s Farapulse in Europe in January 2021, 38,000 AFib patients were treated there with the Farapulse PFA system during 2022-2023, compared to 2,000 patients Farapulse treated in 2021. Moreover, Boston Scientific predicts the global AFib ablation market will grow from US$5 billion in 2023 to US$11 billion in 2028, driven by the increase in the number of PFA procedures.

The growing adoption indicates that PFA has the potential to become the preferred method for treating AFib over the existing treatments, such as thermal catheter ablation and surgical ablation procedures.

Initial clinical trials indicate PFA results in better patient outcomes

With this new technology, patients will experience an improved quality of life with a significantly lower risk of complications and post-procedural discomfort.

This finds evidence in some of the studies performed by the industry. In January 2024, the European Heart Rhythm Association published a study comparing the performance of Boston Scientific’s Farapulse PFA system against thermal ablation systems in 1,572 patients across Europe. The study showed that 85% of patients who underwent PFA experienced overall freedom from AFib after one year, compared to 77% of patients who underwent thermal ablation procedures.

Reduced time of post-procedure care is PFA’s major advantage

With a duration of about 2 hours, the PFA procedure is shorter than thermal ablation, which takes 3-4 hours. More importantly, PFA requires a few hours of hospitalization post the procedure, while thermal ablation is typically associated with one day of hospitalization after the procedure.

Shorter hospital stays improve patient experience by minimizing stress and discomfort from longer hospitalization hours. They also enable faster scheduling, as hospitals can perform more procedures and minimize scheduling delays.

As PFA does not require in-patient admissions, PFA procedures will not be disrupted by hospital bed shortages. This is a considerable advantage, as many developed countries such as the USA and the UK lack adequate hospital bed capacity. As of 2021, there were 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 population in the USA and 2.4 in the UK, below the WHO’s recommendation of 3.4 beds per 1,000 population.

Moreover, reducing the length of hospital stays yields significant cost savings for patients as well as the payers. Reducing a hospital stay by a day or several hours translates to savings that cannot be ignored. For instance, in the USA, the average cost of per-hour hospital observation is US$600 in 2024, as per the healthcare pricing transparency platform Turquoise Health. The average cost of per-day hospitalization was US$2,883 in 2021, as per a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (Medicare patients are eligible for $1,632 reimbursement). In the UK, the average cost of per-hour hospital observation is US$100, and the cost of per-day hospitalization is US$442 as of 2022, according to the National Health Service.

Short learning curve and procedure time facilitate performing more procedures

A short learning curve equips more cardiologists and trainees with the skills required to perform and support the procedure faster. Cardiologists typically get comfortable with PFA procedures after 5-10 cases, which allows to expand the pool of specialists performing this treatment relatively quickly and easily. This, in turn, can significantly improve PFA accessibility.

As the shortage of physicians continues to worsen globally, particularly in the USA, which represented 50% of the ablation market in 2023, PFA can play a crucial role in facilitating an increase in the number of procedures performed at a hospital within the same timeframe. With an expected shortage of 120,000 cardiologists in the USA by 2030, according to a 2021 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, performing quicker procedures can help to partially offset the lack of specialists. Since PFA takes 30-50% less time than conventional ablation methods, it has the potential to significantly increase the number of procedures performed.

MedTech companies grow their ablation market share by offering PFA devices

With increased health screening efforts that detect more patients with arrhythmias, the number of cardiac ablation procedures performed globally doubled between 2013 and 2023 to reach about 650,000 procedures in 2023.

Boston Scientific expects the global AFib ablation market to more than double to US$11 billion during 2023-2028, with PFA predicted to grow to more than 80% of procedures (from under 5% in 2023). PFA technology is expected to be adopted quickly. As seen in Europe, PFA devices were launched in 2021, and already about 12% of the ablation procedures in the region in 2023 were done using PFA technology.

J&J, Medtronic, and Boston Scientific take the lead in the PFA field

Eyeing the potential of this emerging market, MedTech giants such as Johnson&Johnson (J&J), Medtronic, and Boston Scientific (accounting for 55%, 10%, and 5% share of the global thermal ablation market in 2023, respectively) have entered the market with their newly developed PFA devices. Being early entrants, these companies have the potential to expand their market shares in the cardiac ablation market by grabbing shares from thermal ablation procedures.

Boston Scientific was the first company to commercialize PFA devices with the launch of the Farapulse PFA system in Europe in January 2021. Boston Scientific enjoyed a two-year monopoly in the European market until Medtronic launched an integrated mapping and PFA system called Affera in March 2023. Later, the company launched another PFA system, PulseSelect, in December 2023. In February 2024, J&J’s Varipulse PFA system also received approval in Europe.

In the USA, Medtronic was the first company to receive FDA approval for its PFA system PulseSelect in December 2023, followed by Boston Scientific in January 2024. Medtronic also received FDA approval for Affera in March 2024.

J&J is the only company with a presence in Asia, as the company received approval for its PFA system in Japan in January 2024. Abbott is currently conducting clinical trials for its PFA system Volt in Australia and expects to start clinical trials in the USA this year.

The companies work to enhance and improve their systems. For instance, Medtronic’s integrated mapping and PFA system Affera offers enhanced procedure performance supported by real-time mapping. The integrated system includes an ablation catheter Sphere-9 and mapping software to facilitate real-time mapping. Sphere-9 catheter can perform high-density mapping and ablation simultaneously to allow cardiologists to deliver wide-area focal ablation lesions quickly. Affera can also work with the PulseSelect PFA system to provide real-time mapping. Similarly, J&J has a 3D mapping system called Carto 3 (in the market since 2009), which integrates well with its PFA system and generates real-time 3D mapping that aids in better cell targeting. Boston Scientific has not developed an exclusive mapping system for its PFA system, however, the company claims that any catheter mapping system will work well with Farapulse.

Comparing the PFA systems’ performance in the clinical trials, all systems, including Boston Scientific’s Farapulse, Medtronic’s PulseSelect, Medtronic’s Affera, and J&J’s Varipulse proved to be effective in over 70% of patients in terms of freedom from arrhythmia recurrence in one year.

Currently, PFA devices are only available in the USA, Europe, and Japan, with Boston Scientific dominating in Europe. Boston Scientific has witnessed high adoption rates in Europe so far, and the company has been able to serve 40,000 patients in three years since its entry into the European market in 2021. The company expects an overall organic sales growth of 8-10% during 2024-2026, driven by its PFA devices. Medtronic and J&J have just launched their PFA systems in the USA and Europe, and how these companies perform has yet to be seen. Analysts from BTIG financial services firm predict that Medtronic’s PulseSelect will secure 9% and Boston Scientific’s Farapulse will secure 14% of the cardiac ablation market (which comprises PFA and two other forms of thermal ablation procedures – radiofrequency and cryoablation) in the USA by 2025.

With competent technologies, the market is expected to witness stiff competition from these companies. Analysts from BTIG financial services firm predict that by 2027, PFA will grab 48% of the US cardiac ablation market, while the radiofrequency ablation market will have a 42% share and cryoablation a 10% share. The expected PFA’s 48% market share is likely to be split amongst the leading PFA systems – Boston Scientific’s Farapulse, J&J’s Varipulse, Medtronic’s PulseSelect, and Medtronic’s Affera, at 16%, 13%, 10%,7%, respectively, followed by others with 2% share.

While these companies have already entered the PFA space, Abbott’s wait-and-see approach to PFA may backfire on its performance in the EP market. The company aims to commercialize its PFA system Volt in the USA by 2027 or 2028. However, PFA’s fast adoption threatens Abbott’s US$1.9 billion EP business and its 15% global thermal ablation market share (as of 2023). Growing PFA adoption could also threaten Abbott’s diagnostic catheter and mapping systems, as healthcare providers using PFA systems would prefer buying mapping systems linked to PFA.

New entrants to drive innovation and further improve PFA technology

Apart from the large players, there are a few smaller players, such as Canada-based Kardium, US-based Adagio Medical, and US-based Pulse Biosciences, that are developing PFA systems. These companies are investing in improving the PFA using nanotechnology and supportive systems such as 3D mapping systems. For instance, Pulse Biosciences developed Nanosecond PFA (nsPFA) technology that uses superfast nanosecond pulses of electrical energy that can regulate cell death, which spares adjacent noncellular tissue. The company expects FDA approval for this system in 2024.

EOS Perspective

Over the years, MedTech companies have been actively pursuing the development of minimally invasive procedures that have shorter recovery periods, offer improved patient outcomes and reduced post-procedure discomfort. As the limitations of the existing ablation methods became apparent, PFA poses a vast growth potential, as it is a safer, more convenient, and more effective alternative.

On the other hand, the pulsed-field waveform is significantly more complex than the energy modalities that preceded it, with numerous variables determining the dose targeted at the tissues and the quality of the resulting lesion. While a variety of PFA systems have demonstrated effective ablation procedures, these systems have yet to advance in overcoming all limitations of targeting the tissue of interest and rare but potentially serious complications.

In the coming years, we can expect companies to develop multiple catheter configurations that allow cardiologists to configure the energy delivery to achieve the desired energy dose and lesions. This includes the development of multi-configurable ablation catheters that can shift shapes to create circular, linear, or focal ablation lesions without performing catheter exchanges.

As the technology advances, we can expect PFA to dominate the AFib ablation market and democratize AFib ablation procedures by improving accessibility to all eligible patients.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Digital Therapeutics: The Future of Healthcare?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be done with its rampage, many people still opt to access all kinds of services, including healthcare, from the comfort of their homes. As this trend is expected to continue, the global digital therapeutics market, with its projected growth at a 20% CAGR from 2022 to 2035, is one important sector healthcare firms should focus on right now.

Digital therapeutics (DTx) are digital health interventions or software applications that are clinically validated and designed to treat or manage medical conditions. They can be used alone or in conjunction with traditional medical treatments.

The Digital Therapeutics Alliance categorizes DTx products into three types: disease treatment, disease management, and health improvement.

Examples of DTx include a solution to manage chronic musculoskeletal pain developed by Kaia Health, a biotechnology company in New York. This motion analysis tool assesses and guides patients’ progress during physical therapy and tailors treatment to individual requirements.

Similarly, Clickotine from Click Therapeutics, a company also based in New York, uses AI to help people with nicotine addiction. This solution offers a personalized plan fully integrated with eight weeks of nicotine replacement therapy, including options such as gum, patches, or lozenges. It tracks critical aspects such as daily cigarette counts, craving triggers, craving times, etc. A trial study conducted by the company in 2016 claimed that 45% of Clickotine users were able to quit smoking.

Adoption of DTx is taking off amid increased investments

The commercial development of DTx started around 2015 and, since then, has grown into a global market of considerable size. The total value of global DTx start-ups was estimated at a whopping US$31 billion in 2022, according to a 2022 report published by Dealroom, an Amsterdam-based firm offering data and insights about start-ups and tech ecosystems, in partnership with MTIP (a Swiss-based private equity firm), Inkef (an Amsterdam-based early-stage venture investment firm), and Speedinvest (an Austrian early-stage investor).

The number of people using DTx solutions is expected to increase over the next few years, according to a 2022 report by Juniper Research, a UK-based research firm. The study found that there were 7 million DTx users in the USA in 2020, a number expected to rise to around 40 million in 2026.

This increase can be attributed to the fact that DTx solutions are highly accessible and distributable due to an increase in the use of smartphones. A 2021 report published by Pew Research Center, a US-based think tank, found that 87% of Americans owned a smartphone in 2021, compared to 35% in 2011. With this, more people will be able to access medical care without having to spend more on hospital visits.

DTx applications have also been attracting numerous investors owing to the applications’ cost-effectiveness, ease of distribution, and better accessibility. According to the same 2022 report published by Dealroom, global venture capital funding in DTx witnessed a fourfold increase in 2022 compared to 2017.

All these studies reveal that, despite certain challenges, the DTx applications hold the promise of developing into a practical and affordable means of treating illnesses and conditions that impact large numbers of people.

Regulatory pitfalls present a major roadblock to DTx adoption

One main challenge DTx companies face is the regulatory environment. All DTx products must comply with the regulations of regional agencies such as the FDA, HIPAA, HITECH, etc.

Many US firms initially faced regulatory obstacles and payer resistance around product reimbursement. Before 2017, the US FDA classified DTx solutions as a SaMD (Software as a Medical Device) and, therefore, made them subject to risk assessment (low, medium, or high). Due to this, DTx solutions needed premarket approval and rigorous clinical trial results to get approval.

This has improved with the introduction of the Digital Health Innovation Action Plan by the FDA in 2017. According to the new plan, the FDA will first consider the company producing the solution. If the producer has demonstrated quality and excellence, it can market lower-risk devices with a streamlined premarket review. Post-market surveillance and data collection are also done to evaluate product efficiency.

Similarly, in the EU, DTx is controlled by national competent authorities and governed by the European Regulation on Medical Devices 2017/745 (MDR). However, no specific framework indicates the evidence required for assessing the performance or quality of DTx solutions or their production standards. This means that the member states may interpret the dossier requirements differently, leading to a fractured regulatory environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided companies with some regulatory flexibility, leading to an increase in venture capital funding. In 2020, the federal government in the USA issued a new rule allowing healthcare practitioners to treat patients across state lines, including the use of digital medicine. This can increase access to healthcare, especially in rural areas, and physicians will be able to offer timely care to their patients traveling in a different state.

The FDA has also loosened regulations during COVID-19, particularly for mental health products, with the Digital Health Innovation Action Plan. This was to ensure that patients received timely care even from their homes while reducing the burden on hospitals. It waived certain regulatory obligations, such as the need to file a 510(k) premarket notification during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 510(k) is a submission indicating that a new medical device is similar to something already approved by the FDA (a predicate device) to ensure safety and efficiency. However, finding suitable comparables can be highly challenging in the case of DTx, which is dynamically evolving. This can result in misunderstandings or overlooking of critical aspects of these solutions, leading to uncertainty and delays in the approval process. The waiver of this regulation offers DTx companies some relief in the future.

Digital Therapeutics - The Future of Healthcare by EOS Intelligence

Digital Therapeutics – The Future of Healthcare by EOS Intelligence

Patient health literacy is a hurdle in the adoption of DTx solutions

A survey by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in 2003 has shown that only 12% of Americans possess proficient health literacy skills, making them able to find and understand information related to their health. This lack of awareness among patients can also impede the ease of applying DTx products.

Patient experience is also crucial for the acceleration of DTx adoption. Older patients unfamiliar with using technological gadgets can find it difficult to adopt DTx solutions. However, a 2022 AMA survey has shown that 90% of people over the age of 50 in the USA recognize some benefit from digital health tools.

Similarly, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021 indicated an increase in the use of smartphones and the internet among older people in the USA, driven by the pandemic. Older adults are using technological applications for activities such as entertainment, banking, shopping, etc., even after the pandemic, a 2021 survey by AARP Research, a US-based NPO, shows. This indicates that there is scope for an increase in adoption.

Many companies are now trying to increase patient involvement by using gamification, aiming at patient groups for whom DTx use is likely to be more challenging (e.g., older population, children). DTx developers include game-like elements or mechanics into a DTx solution, such as tasks, rewards, badges, points, and leaderboards. An example is US-based Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx, a prescription DTx aimed at enhancing attention function in children with ADHD aged 8 to 12. It uses an interactive mobile video game to assist children in improving their attention skills and adjusting to their performance levels. The game’s sensory stimuli and motor challenges also help kids multitask and tune out distractions.

Payer reluctance affects many DTx products

Although the number of DTX products on the market increases, payers’ reluctance to cover their costs to the patient can also slow down adoption. The coverage of DTx solutions is limited, even when they are FDA-approved. Only 25% of payers are currently willing to cover prescription DTx solutions, according to a 2022 survey by MMIT, a Pennsylvania-based market data provider, which involved 16 payers.

Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx is one such solution facing insurance coverage issues. Elevance Health (previously Anthem) denied coverage for EndeavorRx, deeming it medically unnecessary, while Aetna, another insurance provider, considers it experimental and investigational.

A study released by Health Affairs, a health policy research journal, in November 2023 has shown that only two of the twenty FDA-approved prescription DTx solutions on the market have undergone rigorous evidence-based evaluation. This means that no authoritative results indicating the benefits of these solutions for various population demographics are available, making many payers skeptical of their medical claims.

DTx offers solutions for managing multiple conditions

Over the past few years, several prominent players have emerged in the DTx landscape. Around 59% of the DTx market is concentrated in the North American region and 28% in Europe.

Top players, such as Akili Interactive and Big Health, both US-based firms, focus on offering products for managing mental health illnesses, mostly management of anxiety, depression, and stress, according to a report published in 2023 (based on data until September 2022) by Roots Analysis, an India-based pharma/biotech market research firm. With about 970 million people suffering from mental health conditions globally (according to the WHO), the potential user pool is enormous, offering growth opportunities for DTx solutions developed to address mental illnesses and, over time, driving the growth of the DTx market as a whole.

Many top companies also focus on solutions offering pain management and treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes, obstructive pulmonary disease, and musculoskeletal disorders. An example is US-based Omada’s pain management solution, Omada MSK. This application guides patients through various customized exercises and records their movements, which are then assessed by a licensed physical therapist (PT), who can make recommendations for improvement. It also has a tool that utilizes computer vision technology to help PTs virtually assess a patient’s movement and range of motion, allowing them to make necessary changes in the therapy.

Similarly, several DTx solutions on the market now focus specifically on diabetes, which affects around 537 million adults globally. Some top companies focus on the previously unmet needs of conventional methods, such as weight management or preventing prediabetes, to help with overall diabetes treatment. US-based Omada’s solution, Omada Prediabetes, comes with a weight scale pre-connected to the app, and the weight is added to the app as soon as the patient steps on the scale. A dedicated health coach assesses the patient’s weight, creates a customized plan, and monitors the patient’s progress. In other similar DTx solutions for diabetes, an app can also give insulin dose recommendations based on the patient’s blood glucose levels.

DTx can serve in a range of other conditions, including major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and multiple sclerosis, to name a few.

The DTx landscape is rife with development

The DTx business landscape has recently seen many developments, from acquisitions to product launches. One of them was Big Health’s acquisition of Limbix, a California-based DTx firm, in July 2023 to bolster its portfolio, including SparkRx, a treatment for adolescents dealing with depression and anxiety. Similarly, in June 2023, Kaia Health launched Angela, a HIPAA-compliant, AI-powered voice-based digital care assistant, to serve as a companion and guide, enhancing the physical therapy experience for patients.

In another development, BehaVR, a DTx company headquartered in Kentucky, and Fern Health, a digital chronic pain management program, merged their companies in November 2023 to create a novel pain management DTx solution that addresses both pain and fear caused by chronic diseases. With this merger, they launched RealizedCare, an app designed to offer a comprehensive solution that collaborates with health plans, employers, and value-based providers to treat a range of behavioral and mental health conditions. This solution provides clinicians with immersive programs specifically designed for in-clinic use. It is initially focusing on chronic pain.

Bankruptcy of Pear and lessons for the industry

However, the most shocking development in the DTx market was the bankruptcy of Pear Therapeutics in 2023. The remains of this once-prominent company were purchased by four other companies for a total of US$6.05 million at an auction. Pear was a big name in the industry since its inception in 2013. It introduced numerous products such as reSET, reSET-O, and Somryst for treating substance use disorder, opioid use disorder, and chronic insomnia, respectively. It was also the first company to receive FDA approval for a mobile app aimed at treating substance use disorders.

Though the company announced layoffs of nearly 20% of its workforce in November 2022, its management expressed optimism about the company’s growth and reduced operating expenses in the third quarter. But in April 2023, the company filed for bankruptcy.

The demise of Pear has opened the eyes of industry experts to the challenges faced by DTx players. Certain issues were unique to Pear itself, such as the comparatively higher prices of its products and the focus on treating challenging conditions such as substance use disorders. However, the bankruptcy of Pear also brings attention to the obstacles that can be faced by any other DTx company. One crucial roadblock is that physicians and payers still approach these products with caution. Additionally, achieving profitability for DTx might be challenging for all types of players, particularly for small start-ups lacking substantial market influence. The bankruptcy of Pear and the challenges it faced can be used by budding DTx companies as a road map as they navigate this complex sector.

EOS Perspective

DTx is all set to revolutionize the medical industry, with a 2020 McKinsey report suggesting it could potentially alleviate the global disease burden by up to 10% by 2040. Given the impact of emerging treatments on stakeholders, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies should consider expanding their portfolio to include DTx solutions.

With telehealth companies seeing good growth in the pandemic and post-pandemic years, an increase in investment can be expected as they are uniquely placed to support prescription DTx. With the growth of the digital health industry, prominent telehealth providers may also choose to acquire DTx businesses or create their own in-house DTx solutions.


Read our related Perspective:
 COVID-19 Outbreak Boosts the Use of Telehealth Services

An increase in industry M&A activities can be expected in the next few years, with growing incidences of chronic illnesses, improved technology penetration across all age groups, and a maturing market. Big names such as Bayer, Novartis, and Sanofi are also entering into partnerships with DTx companies, indicating a bright future for the sector.

Mental health and behavioral therapy are great fields to branch out for companies starting in the DTx landscape, especially in this post-pandemic era. Demand for such services is likely to be sustained, considering the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders estimates that one in four adults in the USA suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, with many suffering from multiple conditions.

Similarly, diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart, and respiratory ailments are on the rise. Healthcare companies can effectively address these medical areas through the use of DTx applications, providing personalized care for patients. This approach has the potential to manage not only chronic conditions such as diabetes but also terminal illnesses such as cancer.

Many DTx players will likely focus on areas with unmet needs, including pediatrics and metabolic disorders. With seven DTx-based diabetic management solutions already receiving 510(k) clearance as of December 2022, it can be expected that more products addressing the treatment gaps might flood the market.

The DTx industry is gradually maturing and has been receiving significant investments in recent years (US$8 billion in 2022). While experts view it as a profitable market, hesitation remains, particularly following the bankruptcy of Pear Therapeutics.

Nevertheless, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures, technology adoption among older adults has increased significantly. Hence, strategic investments in DTx by pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, taking into account market conditions, can expect to establish a stronger presence in this industry in the future.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA: Is Greed Winning Over Welfare?

Americans have been struggling with access to affordable healthcare for years, with thousands of stories of an unexpected illness driving a patient to bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the USA spends much more than European nations on healthcare but covers the smallest percentage of the healthcare costs. Wasteful spending, excessive administrative costs, no limit to medicines prices, lack of a single unified interface system, and passive attitude by the government are all building blocks of a wall separating Americans from the quality and affordable healthcare system expected from any developed country.

According to a 2020 article published by Harvard, the annual cost of healthcare in the USA was around US$3.5 trillion, of which around 33% is believed to have been squandered. Simultaneously, healthcare costs are soaring, contributing significantly to several issues around the delivery and affordability of healthcare in the USA. The same Harvard article revealed that about 40-44% of Americans decided to omit or postpone medical treatment, tests, or care owing to their high costs. Although the USA has the highest national healthcare expenditure, the country registers one of the lowest life expectancies among the developed economies. Additionally, around 10% of the population does not have health insurance.

This problem is so deep-rooted and widespread that the issue of healthcare costs was referred to as the “tapeworm of American economic competitiveness” by investor Warren Buffet. Almost 67% of the US population wishes the federal government to regulate healthcare prices in the country. Yet, despite it being such a grave problem, the US government does not seem to be taking any (visibly) constructive measures to resolve it. While significant political aspects are certainly at play, a deep dive into the cost drivers of the US healthcare system might shed some light on the complexity of this issue.

Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA - Is Greed Winning Over Welfare by EOS Intelligence

Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA – Is Greed Winning Over Welfare by EOS Intelligence

Healthcare administrative costs hold the lion’s share of total healthcare expenditure

One of the major components of healthcare costs in the USA is the annual cost of healthcare administration at US$1,055 per capita, according to a 2021 estimation by the Peterson Foundation. The US spending on healthcare administrative purposes is by far the highest globally. Compared with Germany, the second-highest spender on healthcare administration at US$306 per capita, the stark difference of US$749 per capita speaks volumes about the current situation in the USA. The country also registers the world’s highest share of administrative costs in total healthcare costs, at around 15-30% annually. Wasteful administrative spending is estimated to contribute about half of that share (7.5% to 15% of the country’s total healthcare spending), translating to anywhere from US$285 billion to US$570 billion in 2019.

The USA spent around US$950 billion in 2019 on healthcare administration, which translates to 25% of the national healthcare expenditure (NHE) that year. A significant part of the excessive administrative expenditure is billing and insurance-related costs (BIR), including overhead costs for medical billing and services such as claim submission, claim reconciliation, and payment processing. Profits made by the insurance companies account for the highest share of BIR costs. Healthcare providers also get part of these administrative costs for note-taking and record-keeping during the medical billing process. According to an article published by Harvard in 2020, there are occupations in US healthcare that do not exist elsewhere, such as medical-record coding to claim-submission specialists. Further, the article claims that in other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, where multiple payers and private providers exist, healthcare administration costs less than 50% of the USA equivalent.

As per 2019 McKinsey research, the USA could decrease healthcare administrative expenditure by 30% through automation and streamlining of the BIR processes. Claims processing software enables automation of BIR processes, however, only 15% of US hospitals employ such software, as per Definitive Healthcare tech data.

Healthcare services costs, including physicians’ salaries, empty patients’ pockets

A 2018 JAMA study revealed that physician salaries in the USA were higher than in other developed countries. A survey by Medscape in 2021 revealed that physicians earned the most in the USA compared to other developed countries. On average, the annual income of physicians in the USA was US$316,000, followed by Germany (US$183,000) and the UK (US$138,000).

As per 2019 Commonwealth Fund research, Americans are much less likely to consult a doctor in case of a health issue, at half the rate compared to other developed countries. This can be attributed to the fact that the cost of healthcare services is considerably higher in the USA vis-à-vis other developed nations. According to a 2017 report, the average cost of a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery in the USA was US$78,100, whereas the same procedure cost only US$11,700 in the Netherlands. While the procedure cost is already far lower, in the Netherlands, patients will likely have the procedure cost fully covered by insurance without any co-payment. The USA also reported higher costs for outpatient procedures such as MRI scans and colonoscopies compared with other developed countries.

Skyrocketing prescription drug prices further inflate healthcare costs

As per OECD, in 2019, the average spending on prescription drugs by an American was about US$1,126 per capita, which was over double that in other developed nations. As per CMS, prescription drug spending in the USA by the federal government is expected to grow by 6.1% through 2027.

The growth in prescription drug spending could be attributed to increased focus on specialty pharmaceuticals and precision medicine. Specialty medicines are experimental therapies for treating cancers, autoimmune diseases, or chronic conditions. Some specialty medicines employ genetic data to provide highly targeted, personalized therapy. Owing to the complex nature of these drugs, they are generally expensive to develop and distribute.

For instance, a novel specialty drug called Hemgenix to treat hemophilia B is the most expensive drug ever approved by the FDA. The price of a single infusion of this gene therapy is around US$3.5 million. No healthcare providers have submitted a claim for Hemgenix so far in 2023.

Apart from specialty medicines, pricing strategies for drugs in general play a significant role in soaring healthcare costs in the USA. Drug producers set a list price based on their product’s estimated value, and the price list can be increased by the producers as they see fit. In the USA, there are few regulations to curb producers from increasing drug prices in this way.

Chronic diseases add fuel to the fire of escalating healthcare costs

As per the CDC, six out of ten adults in the USA have a chronic disease or condition. The most common chronic diseases or conditions in the USA include heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Furthermore, according to 2022 research published in the National Library of Medicine, of the population 50 years and older, the number with at least one chronic disease is estimated to increase by 99.5% from 71.522 million in 2020 to 142.66 million by 2050.

There is a robust correlation between the prevalence of chronic diseases and rising healthcare costs. As per a report from the American Action Forum, the USA spends about US$3.7 trillion annually for the treatment of chronic health diseases and the consequent loss of economic productivity. Routine office visits, prescriptions, outpatient treatments, or emergency care account for most of this healthcare spending in the USA.

Expanding geriatric population contributes to rising healthcare costs

According to the US Census Bureau, 21% of the US population is expected to be 65 years or older by 2030. The growing aging population is expected to drive healthcare costs in the USA in two ways: through Medicare enrollment growth and the increase in the prevalence of more complex and chronic conditions. Medicare had over 65 million beneficiaries as of March 2023, a number that is expected to increase by 2030 dramatically. This enrollment growth will impact NHE since Medicare is a publicly funded program. As per the CMS, in 2020, the USA spent US$900.8 billion on Medicare, and the CMS expects that Medicare spending will surge by 7.6% annually through 2028.

The elderly population is vulnerable to chronic conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. According to the National Council on Aging, 80% of older Americans have a chronic condition, and 77% of older adults have two or more chronic conditions. These chronic conditions will require ongoing treatment or long-term care at a nursing home or assisted living facility. These outcomes will account for increasing healthcare costs and overall national healthcare expenditure in the USA.

Greed over welfare

Corporate avarice is another factor said to be responsible for the rising healthcare costs in the USA. Insulin list price in the USA is 10 times higher than that in Canada. Not only pharma companies but also renowned hospitals charge more for the same service compared with less renowned hospitals. This applies to various services, from complex surgeries to simple X-rays.

Price regulation is the only solution to this problem that could be implemented with enough political will. The US state of Maryland has introduced this regulation for hospital services, while most European countries have regulated the prices of pharmaceuticals. However, implementing price regulation would mean that the compensation of the top management executives or the CXOs would decline, or the budget for R&D would reduce. This causes much resistance among top management executives to arrive at a constructive decision of choosing between self or service. However, the fact that patients delay treatment because of rising prices speaks strongly in favor of introducing at least some level of price regulation.

EOS Perspective

Standardization is one of the key ways to decrease administrative costs. Just for comparison purposes, checking out of a grocery store is easy because all products possess bar codes, and all credit card machines are the same or uniform. Similarly, mobile banking and inter-banking are straightforward since the Federal Reserve has set standards for how banks should interface with each other.

However, the American healthcare system has been immune to such a standardization. Every health insurer needs a different bar-code-equivalent and payment-systems submission. In addition, it is tough to send electronic medical records (EMRs) from one hospital to another because there is no mandate by the federal government for them to be in compatible formats. Additionally, this lack of standardization benefits many healthcare providers, as they strive to avoid the interchange of EMRs to prevent patients from switching doctors.

Standardization is possible only when prominent stakeholders are involved in it, agree to it, and decide they need it. The largest stakeholder in the US healthcare system is the federal government. Buying capacity and administrative control to compel payers and providers to adopt billing and interface rules to standardize the process lies within the federal government’s responsibilities.

Similarly, a price cap regulation needs to be brought about in the pharmaceutical sector. Price regulation is the only way to lower the prices of prescription drugs. Apart from this, the federal government needs to implement price cap regulation in healthcare services such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, etc.

It is the government that should introduce regulations that put caps on drugs and services prices, at least in certain product and service groups. It is the government that should establish the infrastructure to materialize standardization and introduce a deadline by which all interactions must be standardized.

However, to date, the federal government only considers providing insurance – particularly Medicare and Medicaid – to people as its role rather than looking out for the entire healthcare system as a unit. This mentality needs to change if healthcare costs are to be brought down.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Lithium Discovery in Iran: A Geopolitical Tool to Enhance Economic Prospects?

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Iran possesses significant mineral reserves, but its mining industry grapples with issues, including machinery shortages and international sanctions. The recent lithium discovery in Iran holds the potential to boost its mining sector and economy, depending on the viability of lithium extraction and processing, as well as geopolitical factors. It can serve as a bargaining chip to lift sanctions imposed by the Western world. China is poised to benefit the most from Iran’s lithium discovery due to its strategic partnership and expertise in lithium refining and extraction technologies. However, despite Iran’s strong mining potential, high infrastructure costs, technological limitations, and sanctions hinder its mining industry development.

Lithium discovery to help drive mining industry and economic upliftment in Iran

Iran is home to more than 7% of the world’s total mineral reserves and is rich in minerals, including zinc, copper, iron ore, coal, and gypsum. However, Iran’s mining industry is still nascent and barely contributes to economic growth due to a lack of necessary machinery and equipment as well as international sanctions.

In the past, Iran exported various minerals, such as iron ore, zinc, and copper, to Western countries. However, prolonged international sanctions, initially imposed in 2006 to restrain Iran’s nuclear development program, resulted in insufficient investment in the mining sector.

Lithium Discovery in Iran A Geopolitical Tool to Enhance Economic Prospects by EOS Intelligence

Lithium Discovery in Iran, a Geopolitical Tool to Enhance Economic Prospects by EOS Intelligence

Announced in March 2023, the discovery of lithium deposits holding up to 8.5 million tons of lithium in Iran, if proven accurate, is expected to strengthen the country’s mining sector and overall economic growth. Iran is the first country in the Middle East to discover lithium deposits.

Lithium is a crucial component of lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and electric vehicles. The increasing adoption of electric vehicles is fueling the demand for lithium at a significant rate globally. There is a great need to scale up lithium mining and processing to meet the demand, particularly for the manufacturing of electric vehicles.

International Energy Agency (IEA), in its global EV outlook for 2022, indicated that about 50 new average-sized mines need to be built to fulfill the rising lithium demand for electric vehicles and meet international carbon emission goals. There are already signs of lithium shortage as demand for lithium increases globally. The lithium reserve found in Iran holds the potential to reverse the lithium supply shortage into surplus in the coming years.


Read our related Perspective:
Electric Vehicle Industry Jittery over Looming Lithium Supply Shortage

Hope for the lifting of sanctions and reestablishment of diplomatic relations

The lithium discovery in Iran is expected to redirect focus toward mining activities in the Middle East. Iran can leverage this discovery to persuade Western nations, such as the USA and the EU countries, to lift sanctions imposed for its nuclear program, support for terrorism, and human rights violations. These sanctions include restrictions on Iran’s access to the global financial system, travel bans on targeted individuals and entities involved in concerning activities, and limitations on trade in certain goods and technologies.

In August 2023, Iran and the USA reached an agreement wherein Iran intended to release detained Americans in exchange for the release of several imprisoned Iranians and access to frozen financial assets. Fulfillment of commitments demonstrates mutual trust among the countries, which could pave the way for improved relations, reduced tensions, and future diplomatic initiatives. The US government also permitted Iran to enrich uranium up to 60%. This can be interpreted as allowing Iran to meet their nuclear aspirations, which could encourage Iran to comply with the agreement signed with the USA. As cooperation and trust between the nations strengthen, this agreement could ease sanctions. Moreover, if relations continue to improve, Iran could potentially seek assistance from the USA for its lithium venture.

Also, in March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the help of China, reached an agreement to resume their diplomatic relations, re-open embassies, and implement agreements covering economy, investment, trade, and security. With the reestablishment of cordial relations, Saudi Arabia is likely to engage in joint ventures within Iran’s mining sector, providing mutual benefits for both nations.

It can also be expected that India will seek to strengthen its ties with Iran by building strong collaborations to ensure a regular lithium supply, considering that India is one of the largest importers of lithium-ion batteries. Iran and India share strong and multifaceted relations across various areas, such as trade, energy, connectivity, culture, and strategic cooperation. As India strives to transition to renewable energy sources and reduce its carbon footprint, access to lithium reserves from Iran could facilitate the development and deployment of energy storage solutions, such as grid-scale batteries and off-grid systems.

Potential to disrupt the global lithium race and geopolitical relations

The announcement of lithium deposits in Iran is likely to impact the global competition for lithium resources significantly. It holds the power to disrupt the existing power dynamics in the global lithium race, as it is estimated to be the second-largest lithium reserve in the world after Chile.

Many countries compete to control lithium supply chains due to its strategic importance, particularly in the EV industry. A few countries dominate the global lithium production, including Australia, Chile, and China. The emergence of Iran as a significant lithium producer could diversify the global supply chain. China, the largest importer and processor of lithium and manufacturer of lithium batteries, holds a substantial share of the lithium market. China is particularly reliant on foreign lithium suppliers, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Zimbabwe, accounting for around 70% of its total lithium imports.

With China’s well-established economic and political relations with Iran, there is potential for collaborative ventures in the clean energy transition supply chain. In addition, China’s expertise in technological advancements in lithium-related technologies, particularly lithium-ion battery manufacturing, purification and refinement of lithium, battery management systems, and development of battery materials, will likely play a crucial role in gaining access to Iranian lithium. Increased access to lithium will reduce its dependence on the current lithium suppliers and gain dominance in the lithium supply, impacting the trade balance and economic growth of countries supplying lithium to China.

At the same time, Australia, which stands out as China’s current primary source of lithium, exporting around 90% of its lithium to China, might encounter political and economic challenges. Australia, being a close ally of the USA, is likely to face pressure to curb its lithium exports to China, aiming to limit China’s access to sources of lithium. Chile, also being the key supplier of lithium to China, may face similar pressure from the USA. The USA is likely to exert such pressures, as China’s strong position could undermine the USA’s technological competitiveness and leadership in the EV market, accelerating the existing tensions and disrupting power dynamics in the global lithium race.

Major influencing countries such as the USA, Canada, France, Japan, Australia, the UK, and Germany also formed the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance in 2022. The alliance aims to secure supply chains of critical minerals, including lithium, nickel, and cobalt, from countries with more robust environmental and labor standards to reduce dependency on China. Such initiatives are expected to impact China’s dominant global lithium supply chain position.

Inevitably, Iran’s lithium discovery and China’s potential involvement in securing access to the resource can influence international relations, particularly between China and the USA, and China and Australia.

China to deepen ties with Iran

China and Iran have established an extensive partnership focused on China’s energy needs and Iran’s abundant resources. China has remained Iran’s primary trading partner for more than a decade. Their relationship grew stronger, specifically after the USA pulled out of the nuclear agreement and reintroduced sanctions on Tehran in 2018. Both China and Iran are confronted with sanctions from the USA, which is expected to strengthen collaboration between the two to mitigate the impact of sanctions and to counterbalance US influence in the Middle East and Asia.

In March 2021, China and Iran signed a 25-year strategic collaborative agreement to reinforce the countries’ economic and political alliance, particularly focusing on investment in Iran’s energy and infrastructure industry and assuring regular oil and gas supply to China. This is expected to further strengthen the relations between Iran and China.

China, the most trusted strategic ally of Iran and a significant lithium producer will likely act as a critical partner in building up Iran’s lithium industry. As the global leader in electric vehicle adoption (in absolute terms), the demand for lithium in China has increased dramatically in recent years. Also, China stands out as the only trade partner capable of accessing and refining lithium on a large scale. This will strengthen the Iran-China relations further.

High infrastructure costs and lack of FDI to challenge the Iranian mining sector

Despite the presence of a vast mining potential in the country, certain factors such as inadequate access to essential machinery and equipment, lack of exploration facilities, lack of sufficient infrastructure and investment, absence of advanced technologies, and shortage of financial resources limit the growth of the mining sector in Iran.

Lack of access to new cutting-edge production technologies, exacerbated by international sanctions, results in inefficient utilization of resources, particularly water, fuel, and electricity in mining operations. In addition, high production costs, mandatory pricing, and lack of skilled labor further pose obstacles in mining operations. This, together with the fact that the lithium extraction process is generally expensive and time-consuming, has led to various small and medium-sized mines opting to cease their operations.

The absence of foreign investment due to international sanctions poses challenges in conducting mining operations in the country. The government seeks to attract foreign investment in the mining sector, a difficult task amid structural challenges, human rights abuse accusations, and international sanctions.

Exploitation of lithium reserves discovered in the country will be difficult due to the lack of advanced technologies required for extraction, processing, and refining. The assessment of lithium grade and its economic feasibility will play a crucial role in determining whether to exploit the reserve.

EOS Perspective

The scale of lithium reserves discovered in Iran is significant, but the exploitation of the mineral is not likely to happen in the near future. Its viability, economic feasibility, actual quantity, and grade are yet to be ascertained. Also, the country does not have access to the necessary technologies required to process and refine lithium, so it has to rely on foreign investors.

Foreign investment in Iran is hindered by the sanctions imposed by the USA and the EU against Iran’s nuclear development program. Back in 2015, Iran agreed to scale down its nuclear program and allow broader access to international inspections to its facilities in return for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. But that ended in 2018 when the USA withdrew from the deal. With the recent agreement signed in 2023, there is hope that it could pave the way for the relaxation of sanctions on Iran.

Additionally, considering lithium’s pivotal role in multiple industries and concerns about China’s dominant power in the lithium supply chain, the US government might consider easing sanctions. EU is not likely to ease or lift sanctions and invest in Iran immediately due to uncertainties about the viability of the reserve, its impact on the environment during extraction, and lack of energy investments in the country. However, the EU may consider easing sanctions in the future if the USA moves in that direction.

Russia and China, having economic and diplomatic ties with Iran, are more likely to show interest in Iran’s lithium discovery. Russia is focusing on expanding its presence in the lithium market to meet the increasing demand for lithium in vehicles and energy storage systems. As a step in this direction, in December 2023, Rosatom, a Russian state corporation, signed a deal to invest US$450 million in Bolivia to construct a pilot lithium plant. Russia is also likely to explore investment opportunities in Iran’s lithium sector.

China is expected to benefit the most from the lithium discovery in Iran, considering its longstanding relations with Iran. At the same time, Iran is also more likely to be eager to collaborate with China, considering China’s strength in the lithium industry and international sanctions.

However, Iran should not solely rely on China, considering China’s track record of engaging in debt-trap diplomacy to exert influence and dependence, particularly over low-income countries. For instance, in 2013, China launched its infamous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), under which it started funding and executing several infrastructure projects in developing and underdeveloped countries across the globe. However, over the years, the BRI initiative has been criticized for resulting in an increased dependence and trapping of the partner countries in heavy debt through expansive projects, non-payment of which may lead to a significant economic and political burden on them. A collaborative agreement spanning 25 years was also signed by China with Iran, primarily focusing on investing in Iran’s energy and infrastructure sectors, facilitating Iran’s involvement in the BRI. Iran could also fall into a similar debt trap, having no viable alternative partner, a fact that China can take advantage of.


Read our related Perspective:
China’s BRI Hits a Road Bump as Global Economies Partner to Challenge It

Many countries are likely to be interested in investing and building strong collaboration with Iran if the reserves’ viability is confirmed and the grade and quality of lithium are suitable for use. This could change the entire dynamics of the lithium supply chain and also lead to a decrease in lithium prices, which have been skyrocketing due to a significant surge in global lithium demand.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Bridging the Gap between MDx Testing and Point-of-care

The COVID-19 pandemic brought innovation and investment to the in vitro diagnostics (IVD) market, opening new pathways to simplify and expand testing. The previously complicated and time-consuming molecular testing gradually started moving towards rapid testing, changing how we manage healthcare. The growing popularity of rapid testing gave way to self-sampling and at-home sampling, which is set to bring molecular testing closer to patients. Another noticeable transformation the industry witnessed post-pandemic was the rise of molecular testing at point-of-care (POC), which is set to disrupt the way clinicians deliver accurate diagnoses in record time.

The latest generation of IVD devices is focused on providing quick diagnosis and being cost-effective. This has led to IVD companies focusing on developing simpler and less invasive sample collection methods, such as self-sampling tests.

IVD innovation is also transforming molecular testing to make healthcare more accessible. To a certain extent, dependence on laboratories is gradually decreasing with molecular testing available at POC. A key development in this area is the use of multiplex assay, which allows to test for multiple pathogens simultaneously, allowing for early diagnosis.

Molecular testing moving near-patient

After using antigen tests during COVID-19, demand for molecular testing for a variety of diseases at POC has risen drastically. In 2023, the industry faced an acute shortage of skilled laboratory staff, further increasing the need for molecular testing to move near-patient. This has resulted in physicians and patients preferring molecular tests at POC (MPOC). Some prominent industry players, such as Cepheid, Abbott, and BioFire, offer CLIA-waived PCR instruments and multiplex assay tests for the POC setting. A CLIA-waived certification allows tests to be performed at a doctor’s office by a non-technician instead of other more complex MDx tests requiring specialized technicians.

Moving these multiplex molecular tests near-patient is revamping the IVD landscape, positively impacting both the patients and payers. Early diagnosis with POC diagnostics empowers physicians with evidence-based decision-making at an early stage. Moreover, with multiplex assays increasingly being used for MPOC and delivering results within 10-25 minutes (in the case of respiratory assays), the wait time for patients to receive the correct diagnosis has reduced substantially. This results in clinicians being able to start with proper treatment on the patient’s first visit, thus reducing the total number of patient visits. Consequently, physicians are also able to accommodate a higher number of patients.

In fact, MPOC could become a critical element of the value-based care model in the USA. The value-based program incentivizes healthcare providers/physicians to provide quality healthcare. With MPOC offering quicker turnaround time and lower testing costs, physicians/payers will likely be better incentivized and motivated to deliver high-quality services.

Growing demand for self-sampling/at-home sampling

The pandemic raised public awareness regarding the use of self-sampling kits and increased demand for them. Further, the FDA granted Emergency Use Authorization to multiple assays during the pandemic to quickly onboard self-test kits and penetrate the US households with this novel testing method.

Driven by the convenience, cost-effectiveness, and accessibility offered by self-sampling kits, they are becoming increasingly popular, particularly amongst the aging population that needs tools and technologies to manage health at home. It is also proving to be a sustainable testing method, as it can be used for preventative screening as well as allows for discretion for patients who may not prefer to get tested in a laboratory or by a physician, particularly in case of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Additionally, unlike OTC tests, molecular diagnostic tests allow for better accuracy in results and are recognized by the FDA for clinical diagnosis use. This has given confidence to healthcare providers to advocate self-sampling, as they stand to benefit from bringing care to patients’ homes, eventually reducing healthcare expenses. In a value-based setting, at-home testing proves to particularly benefit physicians who are able to eliminate unnecessary patient visits.

For the prominent industry players, at-home testing represents a key opportunity area to grow in the niche direct-to-consumer testing segment. Companies are also using these tests as an opportunity to target the rural population who do not have easy access to laboratories. Besides infectious and respiratory diseases, companies are now trying to foray into other treatment areas, such as human papillomavirus (HPV). Self-sample collection for HPV has begun in Europe with BD’s Onclarity HPV assay.

EOS Perspective

Establishing a strong foothold in both self-sampling and MPOC segments is seen as a sizeable business opportunity for stakeholders of the IVD market. In the near term, it is likely for the IVD players to continue launching new assays and technologies to expand offerings.

For self-sampling, MDx players have been focusing on infectious diseases, and there still is a vast untapped market for self-sampling at home, specifically when testing for STIs. In November 2023, LetsGetChecked became the first company to secure FDA approval for chlamydia and gonorrhea at-home sample collection. This has opened doors for other players to enter this niche market, and they are likely to jump on the bandwagon by seeking FDA approvals for their STIs self-sampling kits. Major players, such as Hologic, are already gathering data to launch a self-collection device for STIs. Hologic’s Aptima Swab for STIs multi-testing is approved in the EU, and the company is now conducting trials to get approval in the USA.

In the near term, a noticeable trend in the MPOC segment is expected to be the focus of MDx players on developing multiplex assays that follow the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. There is a growing demand from physicians for multiplex assays that allow them to test for multiple viruses and deliver results in under four hours. Companies have already started to take matters into their own hands by focusing their R&D efforts on developing panels and preparing them for FDA approval and CLIA waiver. Becton Dickinson announced the launch of its first molecular diagnostics POC instrument, BD Elience, by 2025. The device is expected to allow panel testing for respiratory and sexually transmitted diseases.

Although the self-sampling and MPOC segments present many opportunities for the IVD stakeholders, some roadblocks may hinder their development and adoption. For instance, multiplex assay reimbursement schemes may hamper their widespread adoption in the POC setting. Per the latest guidelines, reimbursement schemes for multiplex assays are less favorable than those for singleplex assays. Furthermore, at present, there are no reimbursement schemes in place to reimburse for self-sampling at home, so patients are required to pay out-of-pocket.

Several players face a crucial challenge for at-home collection: proving to the FDA that the self-sample collected is not contaminated or poorly taken. FDA requirements for approval of these tests are very stringent and demand that companies prove the adequacy of the sample collected by patients to match that of laboratory collection.

Despite these challenges, self-sampling and MPOC present untapped opportunities for many IVD players seeking to expand their capabilities and offerings to position themselves better in the MDx market.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Vaccines in Africa: Pursuit of Reducing Over-Dependence on Imports

Pandemics such as COVID-19, Ebola, and the 2009 influenza instilled the need for a well-equipped domestic vaccine manufacturing industry in the minds of African leaders. Currently, due to insufficient local production, the continent depends heavily on imports from other countries, with the imports satisfying about 99% of vaccine demand in the continent. However, thanks to recent significant FDI, the vaccine industry in Africa had a market potential of around US$1.3 billion as of 2021 and is expected to range between US$2.3 billion and US$5.4 billion by 2030, as per McKinsey estimates.

Vaccine sovereignty is the need of the hour for the African continent

One of the most important lessons the COVID-19 pandemic has given to Africa is the pressing need to ramp up vaccine production locally. Biotech firms, such as Moderna and Pfizer, developed COVID-19 vaccines faster than any other producers. However, these vaccines were not easily accessible to most African countries.

Africans, in general, lack access to affordable and quality healthcare. Preventable diseases, such as pneumonia, malaria, and typhoid fever, have high fatality rates across the continent. This calls for localized production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines to lower the economic burden of these diseases and facilitate better access to affordable healthcare.

Currently, Africa relies heavily on other countries, such as China and India, for its pharmaceutical needs. The paucity of localized pharma production aggravates healthcare and vaccine inequity across the continent. To substantiate this, the COVID-19 vaccination rate at the beginning of 2022 in 16 African countries was less than 5% on average.

Currently, Africa consumes around 25% of the global vaccine production, whereas it produces less than 1% of its vaccine needs locally, as per the African Union (AU). Therefore, a lot remains to be done to materialize the goal of achieving 60% of vaccine needs to be satisfied locally by 2040, the vision of the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) under Africa CDC.

Increasing the vaccine production capacity from 1% to 60% in 15-16 years is not an easy task. Considering this, PAVM designed a continental plan for creating a vaccine production ecosystem capable of achieving the 60% target. This plan, called the PAVM Framework for Action (PAVM FFA), assessed that the African vaccine manufacturing industry would be expected to have increased the number of their vaccine production factories from 13 in 2023 to 23 (11 form, fill, finish, or F&F factories and 12 end-to-end factories) by 2040 providing a total of 22 priority products by 2040. It will require dedicated efforts from all involved stakeholders, such as producers, biopharma companies, industry associations, regulatory bodies, and academia.

Vaccines in Africa Pursuit of Reducing Over-Dependence on Imports by EOS Intelligence

Vaccines in Africa Pursuit of Reducing Over-Dependence on Imports by EOS Intelligence

Significant FDI will aid in driving localized vaccine production in Africa

The continent is attracting considerable FDI from the USA and Europe for vaccine development. Several foreign biotechnology firms are partnering with African governments to venture into localized vaccine production.

In March 2023, US-based biotechnology company Moderna partnered with the Kenyan government to set up a production facility for making messenger RNA (mRNA). The proposed annual capacity of Moderna’s first-ever facility in Africa is around 500 million doses of vaccines. The facility is expected to produce drug substances or active pharmaceutical ingredients and the final product for the entire continent.

In another example, a Germany-based biotechnology company, BioNTech, is contemplating commencing production of mRNA-based vaccines in its Rwanda facility in 2025. The construction of the facility began in 2022. With an investment of around US$150 million, this is Africa’s first mRNA manufacturing facility built by a foreign company. The proposed annual capacity of BioNTech’s mRNA facility is about 50 million vaccine doses. BioNTech also plans to set up mRNA factories in other African countries, such as South Africa and Senegal, and plans to produce vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis, HSV-2, and HIV in the future.

In September 2023, the South African government partnered with the KfW Development Bank of Germany. As per the agreement, South Africa will receive €20 million from Germany’s KfW Development Bank over five years for developing and manufacturing mRNA vaccines. The fund will be utilized for equipment procurement and API certification for vaccine production in South Africa.

A consortium of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI), AU, and Africa CDC established the African Vaccine Manufacturing Accelerator (AVMA) with the intent of fostering a sustainable vaccine industry. The formation of AVMA involved donors, partners, industry stakeholders, and non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations. GAVI planned to expand its supplier base, mainly in Africa, in 2021. Furthermore, the global alliance announced the commencement of around 30 vaccine manufacturing projects across 14 African countries.

Moreover, as of December 2023, over US$1.8 billion is planned for investment by a collaboration between the French government, Africa CDC, and other European and international investors to streamline the development and production of vaccines across the continent.

Desire to ensure vaccine effectiveness is seen as a biased vaccine preference

African governments are not only proactively putting in dedicated efforts to attract considerable FDI to build and strengthen the continent’s vaccine manufacturing industry, but they also focus on good quality, effective vaccine types. However, some perceive this as a lack of interest from the African governments to buy non-mRNA vaccines made by local companies.

For example, Aspen Pharmacare, a South Africa-based biotechnology company, put significant investments in ramping up the capacity of its manufacturing facility to produce viral vector vaccines against COVID-19. The company announced in November 2020 that it would be formulating, filling, and packaging the COVID-19 vector vaccine made by J&J. It also received €1.56 million investment from Belgian investors, BIO, the Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries, which is a JV between the European Investment Bank (EIB) and several European DFIs.

However, millions of J&J COVID-19 vaccine doses made in South Africa were exported to Europe by J&J without the knowledge of the South African government, to support Europe’s domestic vaccine demand in August 2021, not complying with the initial agreement of vaccine distribution within the African continent. This created a political impasse between European and African governments over the distribution of the vaccines, which, in turn, delayed their production as the standoff resulted in a long waiting time for Aspen Pharmacare to produce the COVID-19 vaccine.

Ultimately, by September 2021, the European countries agreed to return 90% of the J&J vaccines to Africa. In March 2022, J&J gave Aspen Pharmacare the license to manufacture and distribute the vaccine under its brand name, Aspenovax. The expected production capacity of Aspenovax was around 400 million doses. However, not a single order came from African governments.

According to Health Policy Watch News, the reason for this was the rising production of Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine distributed by COVAX that was being opted for by most African governments. Thus, in August 2022, Aspen Pharmacare had to close its production line, stating non-existent demand in Africa, partly due to the subsidence of the pandemic and partly due to African governments’ lack of interest in non-mRNA vaccines. The company could not sell a single dose of the vaccine, owing to multiple factors, starting from what was perceived as the lack of government’s intent to purchase home-grown vaccines to delayed production due to the Europe-Africa political clash and the rising inclination of the world towards mRNA vaccines.

It is interesting to note that of the total Covid-19 vaccines Africa administered to its residents, 36% were J&J vector vaccines, shipped directly from the USA.

Technology transfer hub and know-how development initiatives are set

To strengthen vaccine production capacity in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the WHO declared the establishment of a technology transfer hub in Cape Town, South Africa, in June 2021. In February 2022, WHO said that Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Tunisia, and South Africa will be among the first African countries to get the necessary technical expertise and training from the technology transfer hub to make mRNA vaccines in Africa.

Afrigen Biologics, a South Africa-based biotech firm, is leading this initiative. As Moderna did not enforce patents on its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, Afrigen Biologics could successfully reproduce the former company’s vaccine, capitalizing on the data available in the public domain. As per an article published in October 2023, Afrigen Biologics reached a stage where its vaccine production capabilities are appropriate for “phase 1/2 clinical trial material production”. Additionally, in collaboration with a Denmark-based biotech firm, Evaxion, Afrigen is developing a new mRNA gonorrhea vaccine.

Besides setting up a technology transfer hub in South Africa, academic institutions are partnering with non-profits as well as companies to reinforce the development of necessary technical know-how and training required for vaccine manufacturing. One such example is the development of vaccines in Africa under the partnership of Dakar, Senegal-based Pasteur Institute (IPD), and Mastercard Foundation. Approved in June 2023, the goal of MADIBA (Manufacturing in Africa for Disease Immunization and Building Autonomy) includes improving biomanufacturing in the continent by training a dedicated staff for MADIBA and other vaccine producers from Africa, partnering with African universities, and fostering science education amongst African students.


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Inflated COVID-19 Tests Prices in Africa

Although significant initiatives are underway, challenges exist

With 13 vaccine manufacturing companies and academic organizations across eight African countries, the continent’s vaccine industry is in its infancy. However, the current vaccine manufacturing landscape includes a mix of facilities with capabilities in F&F (10 facilities), R&D (3 facilities), and drug substance (DS) or active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) development (5 facilities).

One of the challenges African vaccine producers face is not being able to become profitable in the long run. In 2023, a global consulting firm, BCG, in collaboration with BioVac, a South Africa-based biopharmaceutical company, and Wellcome, a UK-based charitable trust that focuses on research in the healthcare sector, conducted a detailed survey exploring stakeholder perspectives on challenges and feasible solutions. The respondent pool consisted of a diverse set of stakeholders spanning across Africa (43%), LMICs (11%), and global (46%). A total of 63 respondents from various backgrounds, such as manufacturers, industry associations, health organizations, regulators, and academic organizations, were interviewed across the regions above. According to this research, most vaccine producers in Africa who were interviewed said that profitability is one of their key concerns. This leads to a lack of foreign investments required for scaling up, which in turn creates insufficient production capacity, thereby increasing the prices of vaccines. Therefore, these producers are unable to meet considerable demand for their products, and their business model becomes unsustainable.

Continued commitment and support from all stakeholders are necessary for achieving a sustainable business model for vaccine producers in Africa and, consequently, for the industry at large. However, it has been observed that the support from global, continental, and national levels of governments and other non-government stakeholders, such as investors, donors, partners, etc., tend to diminish with the declining rampage caused by epidemics in Africa. Therefore, this poses a severe challenge to strengthening the vaccine production industry in Africa.

In another 2023 study, by a collaboration between the African CDC, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), a global non-profit health organization, and PATH, formerly known as the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, involving 19 vaccine manufacturers in Africa, it was suggested that the current vaccine production capacity including current orders to form/fill/ finish using imported antigens is nearly 2 billion doses. In contrast, the current average vaccine demand is 1.3 billion doses annually. In addition, there is a proposed F&F capacity of over 2 billion doses. Thus, if Africa can materialize both current and proposed plans of producing F&F capacity vaccines from imported antigens, the study concludes that the continent will reach a capacity of more than double the forecasted vaccine demand in 2030. Overcapacity will lead to losses due to wastage. Thus, not all vaccine producers will be profitable in the long term. This may challenge the African vaccine manufacturing industry to be profitable.

Moreover, Africa’s current domestic antigen production capacity is lower than what is required to meet PAVM’s vaccine production target of 60% by 2040. In addition, a large part of the existing antigen capacity is being utilized to make non-vaccine products. Although antigen production plans are underway, these will not suffice to narrow the gap between demand and production of antigens domestically in Africa.

EOS Perspective

To create a local, financially sustainable vaccine manufacturing industry with output adequate to support the continent’s needs, it is necessary to create an environment in which producers can achieve profitability.

Initiatives such as technology transfers and funding will only be fruitful when their on-the-ground implementation is successful. This will require the involvement of all stakeholders, from the state governments to bodies that approve the market entry of vaccines. All stakeholders need to be steadfast in their actions to achieve the ambitious target of 60% of vaccine needs to be met from local production by 2040 without compromising on the accuracy and quality of the vaccines.

One of the most vital aspects of the necessary planning is for stakeholders to ensure that even after the pandemic and its aftermath are entirely gone, the effort towards establishing facilities, creating know-how, and training a workforce skilled in vaccine development and production does not stop.

The focus should extend beyond COVID-19, as there are many other preventable diseases in Africa, such as malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and STDs, against which vaccines are not yet produced locally. These areas provide a great opportunity for vaccine producers and associated stakeholders to continue being interested and involved in vaccine production and development in Africa.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Opioid Epidemic in the USA – Is the War to Curb the Crisis Turning Futile?

The opioid crisis in the USA is believed to have begun in the 1990s with the overprescription of pain-relieving medicines. However, the epidemic gained steam recently with the availability of cheap heroin, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids in the USA that foreign drug cartels from Mexico and China predominantly provide. According to a report by the US Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC), the economic burden caused by the opioid crisis in the USA is to the tune of US$ 1.5 trillion in 2020, a 37% increase from 2017 when the CDC last reported it. This translates to 7% of the country’s GDP in 2020, indicating that the problem cannot be ignored.

The death toll owing to the opioid epidemic has tripled from 2016 to 2021, as per research by Yale University. In terms of human deaths, over 1,500 Americans die per week from taking some form of opioid. The overall death toll owing to opioid overdose was 80,411 in 2021.

Although the US government has taken initiatives to curb the crisis, such as increasing the federal, state, and local governments’ investments in drug treatment and prevention programs, a lot more needs to be done in the field of foreign policy and drug approval control, among others.

Federal action to control the opioid epidemic is underway, but more efforts are needed

From funding treatment programs and addiction prevention tools to focusing on a harm-reduction approach that lays importance on life-saving drugs and tools that could reverse opioid overdose, the US government has recently taken significant measures to curb the opioid crisis in the country.

Government grants and monetary aid

To begin with, the federal, state, and local governments have increased funding for the treatment and prevention programs for opioid use disorder. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act was passed in 2016 to combat the opioid crisis in the USA. It was a six-pronged strategy with pillars: prevention, treatment, recovery, law enforcement, criminal justice reform, and overdose reversal.

In monetary grants provided by the federal government, a sum of US$1.8 billion was given to states to combat the opioid crisis in 2019. Grants of US$900 million were given to the CDC over three years to facilitate the monitoring of overdose data and subsequently design strategies for treatment in states and counties/localities.

In addition, US$932 million was given to all 50 states in State Opioid Response grants in 2019. In 2021, the Biden government and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) provided US$5.5 billion for mental health and substance abuse prevention. In 2022, the sum was increased to US$1.5 billion for the State Opioid Response grants.

Apart from grants given by the federal government, some states and counties/localities utilized the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) from the ARP for developing programs to improve behavioral health, prevent opioid addiction, and treatment strategies for opioid use disorder. The SLFRF was to the tune of US$350 billion that was given to the state, territorial, local, and tribal governments across the USA to help them respond to and recover from COVID-19.

Drug control policies

In addition to monetary aid, the federal government brought about changes in drug control policies. For example, in April 2022, the Biden government introduced the National Drug Control Strategy that focused on a harm reduction approach that advocates using life-saving tools such as naloxone, drug test strips, and syringe services programs. It also promotes evidence-based treatment for those who are at a high risk of an overdose and improvement of the data and research systems for seamless development of drug policies.

With the FDA approval of the naloxone nasal spray Narcan in March 2023, it became the first OTC drug in the USA to reverse fentanyl overdoses. Narcan began to be sold to the public by September 2023.

Foreign policies

The US federal government has worked together with the government of Mexico for decades to curb the flow of illicit drugs entering the USA. To cite an example, through the Merida Initiative, the USA gave Mexico monetary aid of US$3.5 billion between 2008 and 2021 to counter the smuggling of illegal drugs across borders.

In the second half of 2021, the Biden government announced synthetic-opioid peddling a national emergency. The federal government also signed two executive orders that allowed the Biden administration to sanction individuals and bodies involved in the creation and distribution of fentanyl.

The 2022 National Drug Control Strategy also laid down policies to minimize the supply of illegal drugs through domestic and international collaboration.

In the second half of 2023, the federal government sanctioned 25 companies and individuals based in China who were suspected to be associated with the production of fentanyl precursor chemicals. Furthermore, the Biden government added China to the US list of countries involved in the creation and distribution of illegal drugs. This list comprises 22 other countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, and India.

In addition to this, the Biden government has continued to put pressure on Mexico to seize fentanyl precursor chemicals obtained from China and eradicate secret laboratories in Mexico. In November 2023, president Biden agreed with the Chinese and Mexican presidents separately to improve bilateral cooperation to prevent the production and dissemination of illegal fentanyl.

Domestic control measures

Apart from international efforts, federal action is being taken to control illegal opioid dissemination domestically. For instance, regulations have been put in place to revise the limits on opioid prescriptions, to prioritize seizing fentanyl, and to create widespread awareness of fentanyl’s lethality. Compared to 2021, the Drug Enforcement Administration of the USA seized double the quantity of fentanyl in 2022, and it announced that 60% of fake prescription drugs possess a lethal dose of fentanyl.

EOS Perspective

The JEC estimates of the US opioid crisis cost of US$1.5 trillion in 2020 speak volumes about the scope and size of the federal action needed to combat the epidemic. The magnitude of the opioid crisis in the USA calls for concrete action from the federal, state, and local governments to decrease both the death toll and the economic burden.

The federal government should promote the increase of access to evidence-based treatment by eradicating the barriers to healthcare and continue to embrace the “treatment over punishment” approach, focusing on medical attention and support instead of imprisonment. Another step is to enable the Medicaid expansion of the 12 states that have yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This will lead to higher access to treatment, thereby minimizing the fatality rate.

Furthermore, the federal government should fund the Overdose Data to Action program for the expanded opioid data collection on overdose deaths in all US states. This will aid researchers and policymakers in arriving at the socioeconomic cost and aftermath of the opioid epidemic to understand better and resolve the problem. The federal government should also take initiatives to reduce the societal stigma around substance abuse for higher enrollment in treatment services.

Moreover, the federal government needs to address Narcan’s cost and accessibility challenges in the USA for better reach and impact. More R&D, increased border inspection, better overdose prevention, and employee assistance programs are instrumental in controlling the opioid epidemic in a better way.

Allocation of funds, increasing access to treatment, and enhancing the understanding of the scale of the epidemic are crucial steps in decreasing the human and economic toll of the opioid crisis in the USA.

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