Two years of the pandemic: Nearly 30% of new research into Covid-19 by our members is carving a path to the public

  • Over 53 biotech organisations are working on 170 solutions to the pandemic and 27% of them have already reached the market
  • Almost half of the lines of research are aimed at diagnosing the disease
Madrid, España

This Wednesday, the Spanish Bioindustry Association (AseBio) presented new data on its members’ work to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been two years since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic, but the needs it has generated persist. So, the solutions to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus are increasing among AseBio members, according to the analysis* the association carried out in the past weeks, comparing to 2021.

Key figures

The results show that, compared to the data compiled a year ago, 38% of the Covid-19 research lines of AseBio member companies and organisations are still active, 28% are new lines, 27% have been completed and are on the market, and just 7% are on stand-by.

“The Spanish biotechnology sector has thrown itself into the search for solutions to the pandemic right from the start, and that has consolidated our industrial and R&D abilities to tackle the future challenges that await us, beyond this virus,” highlights AseBio CEO Ion Arocena. He also mentions, “This healthcare crisis has put a spotlight on innovative tools made in Spain that we should take into account and that will allow us to become more self-reliant, which is essential to our economy and healthcare system.”

The study shows that there are over 53 AseBio members, including companies, hospitals and research centres, working on 170 solutions. Nearly half (49%) of the lines are working on products or raw materials to diagnose the illness, 33% to find a treatment and 9% on prediction tools. AseBio members are also working to develop a vaccine: 7% of this research is focused on it and another 2% of the members are helping produce vaccines.

A forgotten link that is essential to the production chain

The production chain for these tools and solutions is complex and has many players. One of them is Agarose Bead Technologies (ABT) , which collaborates with key organisations internationally and with public bodies like CNB-CSIC (National Centre for Biotechnology - Spanish National Research Council). “Our work, which isn’t well-known yet, has been key to and an essential part of the evolution of the pandemic,” begins the company’s head of marketing Javier Peña.

This Spanish company with fewer than 50 employees and more than 20 years of history was one of the first in Europe to manufacture agarose resins. This product is from a natural source (seaweed) and is an essential part of purifying biomolecules for therapeutic use as antigens or recombinant proteins, antibodies, oligonucleotides and more, which is a crucial step in the production chain for diagnostic tests, biodrugs and even vaccines. The company changed directions through innovation when the global pandemic broke out two years ago: “It caught us by surprise, like all the other companies, but being able to adapt quickly was key. Now we’re entrenched in a huge process of expansion and digitalisation,” adds Peña.

However, the role this company plays isn’t very visible or recognised and, according to the expert, “People don’t know about our work and how it applies to their product in the production chain.” And this puts up some barriers to its visibility, even within Spain. “It’s important for people to know that there is a company here in Spain that can meet their demand for essential raw materials for the purification stages of any bioprocess and supply them in record time. We use our extensive technical knowledge and experience to serve our clients, and work with them to find the most cost-effective solution possible,” he says. “It’s a very traditional market, it’s true, but we’ve had to evolve, whether we wanted to or not, for the global good. And innovation has been more a part of the company than ever”, he concludes.

A virus here to stay

Belén Sopesen, head of the Virology Unit at PharmaMar, notes that there is the still unconfirmed chance that the virus will end up having an impact similar to the flu. “If that is the case, there will always be patients who need medical treatment, especially the most vulnerable such as people with a weakened immune system, who have the worst prognosis,” she warns. At the beginning of the pandemic, the company set up a Virology Unit and, she notes, it will continue to be strengthened. “For the future, we have to look to the past and the present, taking what we’ve learned to be better prepared if it happens again and, therefore, we’re committed to ongoing research.

Plus, Sylentis, a company in the Pharmamar group, is researching new therapeutic approaches based on gene silencing. The company specialises in developing therapies with RNA interference, a powerful tool that allows for rational drug design. Its research so far has focused on dry-eye syndrome, glaucoma and eye allergies, and the business is using that technology to develop new RNAi drugs for Covid-19. The company is also part of the CoviNanoVax project, which is looking into developing a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine that aims to expose the body to an antigen to generate antibodies acting as defence against infection with the virus.

In short, according to the experts and the figures compiled by AseBio, it seems that all the research that has been started and continues is here to stay, in one way or another.

*Note on methodology: the data was obtained by AseBio from information provided by members through 11 March 2022
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Agathe Cortes

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AseBio brings together more than 290 entities and represents the Spanish biotechnology sector as a whole. Its mission is to lead the transformation of the country, positioning science, innovation and especially biotechnology as an engine of economic growth and social welfare. Its members include companies, associations, foundations, universities, technology and research centres that carry out their activities directly or indirectly related to biotechnology in Spain.