CLSA in STAT News: Hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires: How biopharma is girding for climate change

By Kate Sheridan | STAT
Feb. 15, 2019

Takeda predicts that climate change will help its Zika and dengue fever vaccines find a larger market. Roche says it could ultimately make it attractive for the company to develop treatments for diseases like malaria. And AbbVie says extreme weather events might boost its immunology products.

But the potential risks of climate change — and the attendant increase in natural disasters — stand to outstrip any of those incremental gains, as the companies described in recent risk assessment reports to the British nonprofit CDP.

Hurricanes and superstorms, power outages and flooding all threaten manufacturing facilities and research sites, particularly when animals are involved. Droughts, too, threaten critical water supplies. Forest fires, even if remote from a given plant or research facility, bring smoke and air pollution that can similarly disrupt the day-to-day work for drug makers and their supply chain.

Geography doesn’t help, either. The biotech and pharmaceutical industries — concentrated, as they are, in coastal areas like Boston, New Jersey, and California — may face higher risks for extreme weather events.

STAT surveyed the risk assessment plans for more than a dozen major pharmaceutical companies and spoke with officials at labs that survived extreme weather events and others who are planning to avoid their repercussions. All emphasized that the risks are already real — and underscored how hard the industry is working to prepare to meet the challenge.

“You really start to need to ask yourself and sort of reverse-engineer — what are you at risk to, what can you tolerate as a community, as an asset or a structure,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaking specifically about the impact of even a small rise in sea level in places prone to flooding. “Vulnerabilities that are exposed by today’s events, it’s important to document because those likely are going to be the same area that get exposed and are vulnerable.”

In the last five years alone, extreme weather has caused massive disruptions in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Hurricanes and flooding can wipe out research and manufacturing facilities, smoke and air pollution from forest fires threaten experiments and lab animals — as do frigid temperatures and power outages. And the gradual rise in average temperatures have some concerned that plants and animals that serve as sources of existing and potential new drugs may vanish.

Pfizer, for example, estimates it lost $195 million in inventory and overhead when three Puerto Rico manufacturing facilities were wiped out by the recent devastating hurricane season. Eli Lilly ran its Puerto Rico facility with emergency diesel generators “for months” after the storm.

For some, Hurricane Maria was a wake-up call. To AstraZeneca, the storm “showed the site was not resilient enough.” The company is planning to invest more in weatherproof buildings “for current and future conditions.” AbbVie spent a few thousand dollars securing the roofs on its manufacturing plants on the island.

Wildfires, too, can have an extreme impact — even if they occur further afield. For more than a week in November, wildfires in California sent enough small particles into the air that it became “unhealthy” for residents to breathe without filters — and could have damaged the air filters that research labs do use.

“The R&D that fuels innovative activity in life sciences companies requires conditions that are tightly controlled, particularly when it comes to air quality, temperature, and other climate settings,” said Will Zasadny, the California Life Sciences Association’s communications director. In addition to issues around the power grid and the impact the fires had on employees, he said, “wildfire smoke is damaging on air filtration systems.”

Read more at STAT.