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As managing climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, the demand for sustainable business practices has gone from a buzzword to a benchmark. Carbon footprint management and waste reduction are just two of the criteria on which companies are measured. The pharmaceutical industry has so far avoided the spotlight in this regard. With COP27 underway, it’s time to look at the status quo and assess what green pharma frontrunners are doing to care for patients while protecting the planet.
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The environmental impact of big pharma in the United States
US pharmaceutical companies dominate the global market for prescription drugs and other medicines. While several emerging markets are catching up and increasing their influence, the United States still dominates sales globally. In recent years, pharmaceutical sales in the United States have accounted for almost 50% of global pharmaceutical sales.
Moreover, statistics show that 5 of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies in the world were based in the United States in 2021. Pfizer has become the leader of the pack thanks to the development of one of the main vaccines against Covid-19. However, a second company, AbbVie, is catching up fast as the release of its drug Humira helped the company generate an unprecedented $55 billion in revenue in 2021 alone.
Given its economic impact, it may be surprising that the pharmaceutical industry has received little attention regarding its environmental impact. Other manufacturers, such as the automotive industry, have attracted more attention. That doesn’t mean pharmaceutical companies can relax when it comes to their carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
A recent analysis of the sector’s emissions showed that the pharmaceutical industry could hardly be considered a green industrial sector. However, while the study showed that several major manufacturers have struggled to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, others have already exceeded government targets for 2025.
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How Pharma Companies Can Adopt Greener Practices
In the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, the search for greener business practices has been gaining momentum for more than 20 years. Reducing the environmental impact of the development and production of chemicals is at the heart of 12 principles of green chemistrypublished in 1998. These principles still apply today.
Companies that make an impact using the principles of green chemistry use the specified principles of environmentally friendly protocols that include waste reduction, energy conservation, and the elimination and reduction of hazardous waste as as a by-product of their labor.
But, according to the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute, mainstream companies have yet to fully embrace the technology that would help them become greener. According to the ACS, too many manufacturers continue to rely on petroleum derivatives in their manufacturing.
However, there are notable exceptions. One of the biggest pharmaceutical companies to embrace green chemistry is AstraZeneca. Like Pfizer, AstraZeneca cemented its position as a household brand by developing a Covid-19 vaccine.
The company’s Ambition Zero Carbon program aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 90% by 2045, based on a 2019 baseline. emissions of global operations by 2026. Another target is the carbon footprint of the company’s entire value chain, with the intention of reducing it by 50% by 2030.
AstraZeneca scientists have identified the synthesis of active ingredients in their products as a major contributor to the company’s emissions. These Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) are essential for patient recovery but cannot be replaced. Scientists had to find new ways to make them.
The company has collaborated with universities and research institutes to drive innovation in its space, making it a leader in green chemistry.
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The Role of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Transformation in Green Pharma
Minimizing the carbon footprint of the pharmaceutical industry is not only a priority for large companies. Some large companies may find it harder to complete their digital transformation simply because of existing legacy technology and ingrained approaches to drug development and manufacturing.
Newcomers to the space have the advantage of not having to replace old systems. They can build their processes on greener principles from the start. These principles include developing carbon-neutral therapies rather than reducing the environmental footprint of existing ones.
Some of the most promising approaches begin early in the development phase before clinical trials begin and extend through to commercialization. This new approach is aided by advances in digital technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
A newcomer to the pharmaceutical space, Anavex Life Sciences, is using machine learning to reduce the carbon footprint of its clinical trials. The company is in the final stages of testing a dementia drug, promising to help people with conditions such as dementia from Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Some of its development work was supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease Research.
ANAVEX®2-73 addresses the pathology of dementia and its many forms by increasing the activity of Sigma-1 receptors. Increased Sigma-1 activity can alleviate debilitating symptoms and restore normal gene function.
Anavex conducted a phase 2a trial with 32 patients and used machine learning techniques to improve its assessments of clinical trial results. The researchers also exploited whole genome analysis. Their clinical trials are conducted using a decentralized approach, which the company adopted at the start of the pandemic and plans to maintain. The aim is to minimize its carbon footprint by limiting non-essential travel and using smaller trials.
For the same reason, most meetings are held using video conferencing and other technologies. Another advantage of decentralizing clinical trials is that it can make these trials more accessible to participants across the country.
Most pharmaceutical companies own and maintain large wet labs, although few are in full use all the time. The team behind Anavex decided to forgo owning a lab that would sit idle for weeks, relying instead on project-based toxicology studies required by industry regulators. They believe this approach has reduced environmental waste and reduced costs.
The pharmaceutical industry has exceptional potential to become a green industry. Applying the 12 principles and fully exploiting emerging digital technologies will help the industry transform. The key to a successful transformation is to consider the entire value chain, including the selection of suppliers, the choice of facilities and the research and development processes, which will lead to the commercialization of the final product.
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