The Prime Minister recently warned against the need for national independence in terms of production capacity. Speaking specifically of products to respond to the covid19 pandemic, he mentioned equipment such as protective masks. This is because in an emergency situation, not only will remote production be affected, but the distribution of these products will also be compromised, which, coupled with increased demand, could lead to unpredictable stockouts.
Reflecting on what has happened since the start of the pandemic, the alert could have gone even further, since the need for research capacities and local production of health technologies has become very clear. Starting with screening for covid-19, which resulted in an overall failure of equipment, from swabs to laboratory equipment, in which countries with local production prioritize their needs, to the detriment of exports. Portugal succeeded in recruiting the national academic critical mass, using its innovation to develop an alternative diagnostic protocol, using reagents available in excess or synthesized locally. Scientific workforce has also been recruited or volunteered for laboratory diagnostic work, which has helped make Portugal one of the most tested countries in the world.
“Although significant in the short-term response (screening, diagnosis, protection or intensive care), they are the result of partnerships and individual initiatives, and not of a concerted innovation policy.”
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At the same time, the industry has mobilized to produce ventilators, 3D printed protective visors or protective masks that inactivate the virus. These products helped ensure the NHS ‘ability to respond, thus avoiding reaching a breaking point. However, although significant in the short-term response (screening, diagnosis, protection or resuscitation), these are the result of partnerships and individual initiatives and not of a concerted innovation policy.
In fact, the main effort to respond to covid-19 is the production of a vaccine. The race for the answer has given rise to a speculative movement in which different governments are trying to ensure as many doses as possible of the theoretical product, which may not even exist (as in the case of the vaccine under development by AstraZaneca, the existence of a strong national biotechnology industry is important, because without its own production capacity, the risks associated with a need for imports observed at the start of the pandemic remain.
The response to the greatest public health crisis of a generation (and others that may arise) depends on a well-prepared SNS, complemented by a public and private research and development industry, capable of rapidly innovating in the face of to new challenges, with responsiveness on a large scale.