COVID-19 Pandemic Demonstrates the Power of Biotech

Sigilon Therapeutics CTO and MBP Industrial Advisory Board member David Peritt shares his perspective on the role biotechnology will play in helping society solve the coronavirus.

By David Peritt, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer at Sigilon Therapeutics

It's funny how much perceptions can change in a short amount of time. A few short months ago, we had anti-vaccinators who have never experienced a pandemic refusing simple, cheap biotechnology products that have saved more lives this century than ever before and extended human life dramatically. We had potential candidates for President of the United States talking about their disdain for the pharmaceutical sector and Hollywood portraying scientists as crazy and potentially dangerous. 

David PerittToday, leaders from across the globe are leaning on biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies with hopes of possible solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic that range from diagnostic assays and therapeutics to prophylactic vaccines. These companies are uniquely suited for the task based on their scientific acumen, regulatory/clinical and manufacturing/supply chain capabilities. These efforts in concert with academic and government scientists will likely be the manner in which this disease will be neutralized. It is up to us to shelter in place and remain diligent to give these efforts the time they require to mature.

This is the first time many of us faced a true pandemic. Pandemics were a matter of course for millennia and people had a deep respect for the power and danger of infectious diseases. Due to the amazing advances in vaccination and medicine in general, few of us fully appreciated until today the power and danger of these diseases. While the loss of life is unfortunate, I do think there will be two silver linings that will benefit society in the future, and students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) will have a role to play in this evolving landscape. 

Renewed focus on infectious diseases

Not many of us have lived through a pandemic of this sort in our lifetime. For instance, the fear of polio plagued the United States in the early 1950s. In 1952, there were 58,000 new cases of polio that crippled tens of thousands and killed more than 3,000. By 1957, when a vaccine was readily available, the number of new cases in the U.S. was below 6,000, and today, the disease is all but eradicated in the Western world and diminishing quickly around the globe due to efforts of world health organizations supported by the pharmaceutical manufacturers of the vaccines. As this disease and others waned, so too did interest, concern and investments.

Today, the whole concept of concern about infectious diseases is foreign to the general public. Even influenza is barely discussed apart from the decision about getting the flu shot or not. Part of the reason there hasn't been much focus is because there hasn't been much of a perceived need. When that need disappears, so, too, does the monetary support for scientific advancements. Pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists who fund biotechnology have put few resources on infectious disease for the last few decades.

The reality is we have become complacent about the significance of infectious diseases despite some who have maintained the ever-shrinking torch. One thing I think COVID-19 will do is make us think about that complacency and hopefully push us all to focus more on these diseases than they have in the past. This will be important to prevent future pandemics and be more prepared for future new diseases. MBP students now have the opportunity to be part of this revolution as they go out to work in these institutions that will have a renewed focus on the production of these life-saving/preventing modalities.

A new appreciation for biotech as a field

I've been amazed by multiple things that have happened in the wake of the current pandemic. It's been impressive how much of society has stepped up during this time and done what was needed, whether it was individuals social distancing to "flatten the curve", businesses like Fanatics — the company that creates Major League Baseball jerseys — stopping their production line to instead create personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors, or distilleries and breweries beginning to make hand sanitizer. The list goes on and on. It is good to see society come together for a common goal. 

The role of the public in disease prevention has also been very impressive. It is now clear that the lay public is critical and involvement will be more significant moving forward. Due to the ubiquitous access to multi-media, our scientific leaders latched on early to the fact that asking the public to social distance and shelter in place would be the single most important thing that could be done to save lives and give us time for therapies and vaccines to be created. It is impressive how the use of apps and other tracking systems have helped keep the transmission in check. Zoom has enabled families and friends to remain in touch and informed without the need for direct contact. These too are part of the modern-day solution. 

Similarly, it's been amazing to see how biotech companies of all sizes have put aside their primary products in order to shift and try to tackle the coronavirus from all different angles, from therapeutics and antivirals to new types of diagnostic kits. These biotechs are all trying to think through the problem from their own vantage point and seeing how quickly they can take their platform and switch it up to hopefully make it successful for this new purpose.

That is what is so powerful about biotech.

From my vantage point, COVID-19 is highlighting the importance of the biotechnology field to society. I know it's a cliche, but if you work in biotech, your work is more than just a job. You're doing something useful for society, which is an incredible thing. 

That is the message I tell students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP), where I am proud to be a member of the Industrial Advisory Board. MBP sets students up well to be important members of these biotech companies that are developing therapies and helping society. 

In biotech, the initial ideas are easy to come up with and prove. The challenge is determining how to manufacture a product at scale and, in the case of COVID-19, deliver these vital vaccines and therapies to people across the globe. It should be apparent from these last few months that manufacturing and supply are as critical as the invention or design specifications. MBP students are well-suited to answer those questions and make the solution a reality. 

Do not take this role lightly. 


David Peritt, Ph.D., is the Chief Technology Officer at Sigilon Therapeutics. He is a member of the Industrial Advisory Board for Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program.