It has been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began to upend economies, lives, and social interactions around the globe. Initially the promise of a vaccine seemed bleak at best – with such medications typically taking years, if not decades, to develop. However, the urgency for progress of a COVID-19 vaccine changed the game and now, as we take a look back, it’s undeniable that the pandemic also brought about a less-often discussed disruption: a fundamental reshaping of the pharma industry.

For many biotech executives, there was a baked-in assumption that startups – unencumbered by massive size, legacy technology or rigid processes – would be able to navigate the pharma industry much more nimbly than their established counterparts. However, the speed of the COVID-19 vaccine development certainly upended this notion, boosting the reputation of existing pharma industry giants. For the better part of a year, we have watched science at work, getting frequent updates as development phases were shared publicly for the first time, initial doses were rolled out and the general public began their vaccination process. A universal education was happening around clinical trials, vaccine technology, patient recruiting, and more. The fact that, as of the time of this writing, there are multiple vaccines approved for emergency use in numerous geographies, illustrates how much shared risks, regulatory flexibility for digital innovation, collaboration and technology can speed-up vaccine development.

Now that we are able to see the end stage of global pharma’s initial response to this global pandemic, what lessons can other pharma companies take away from the effort? What can a biotech startup learn to get its first product to market? What about the established pharma companies who struggled to move their backlog of R&D through the process with the industry’s all-hands-on-deck efforts of the past year?

Undoubtedly, the speed to market for the COVID-19 vaccine was unprecedented. In this brief, we look at some of the factors that helped drive this rapid success - from product development to testing and manufacturing at scale. We also examine the enabling technologies and practices – agile, digitization, artificial intelligence, cloud and data analytics – manufacturers used to along the way as a guide for pharma and biotech executives looking to bring their products to market faster.