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Pandemic economics and the life science translation market

Luke Sewell headshot

Luke Sewell

Luke Sewell has a background in medical writing and biology. He now works for LatinLink.com providing innovative scientific translation solutions in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese.

Pandemic economics and the life science translation market

Luke Sewell headshot

Luke Sewell

Luke Sewell has a background in medical writing and biology. He now works for LatinLink.com providing innovative scientific translation solutions in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese.

I

t seems especially timely to review the life science translation market. Our work-from-home translators isolating from Covid-19 are now translating more materials about the very disease that is keeping them at home. But as shock turns to acceptance, what will the mid-term impact on the life science translation market be?

At first, the changes appeared to be minimal as governments and markets ignored Covid-19, but as the size of the threat grew, the world took more drastic action.

On the supply side, disruption to the already-decentralized work-from-home industry has been minimal; aside from the slight capacity reduction due to some people’s time off sick. Many firms are well versed in the remote working and productivity monitoring required to make the transition seamless.

On the demand side, the impact is more complex and is pushing in different directions. The largest listed industry players have all been showing strong signs of being able to weather the storm, posting stable demand to date through the crisis. The best placed are those that are more diversified. The reduction in one area could be balanced by an increase in Covid-19 related communications or other new booming areas such as sterile equipment or updated handling procedures.

Translations linked to the consumer staple pharmaceutical products would typically be resilient during an economic downturn and therefore, the related translation demand similarly resilient. Demand for medication would also be defensive during an economic downturn, and indeed, the pharmaceutical industry tends to hold up strongly during difficult times. This has been the case so far during the crisis on the companies themselves, but this is not all translation demand.

Clinical trials

An important driver of demand in the life science translation market are clinical trials. The major impact to the translation market has been from shutting down many clinical trials due to being unable to maintain social distancing. If a trial is no longer in progress, there are no further documents for translation, and this represents a huge translation submarket for the life science industry.

But we can hope that if any institution is able to open a clinically sterile environment, it would be a clinical trial company. Perhaps some trials can be moved to low-rate Covid-19 infected countries, or other social distancing measures put in place to allow re-opening. This still has not happened in many cases, however.

Increasing clinical trials to find a cure or vaccine for Covid-19 (while maintaining social distance) might represent an increase in some translation demand, but for this to offset the wider closure of clinical trials is unlikely. Furthermore, it represents a structural shift and some disruption to suppliers. The crisis has perhaps led to a priority shift among pharmaceutical companies toward more immediate issues and other more niche drugs or novel cures. This has reduced translation demand substantially.

Technology

Covid-19 has been a catalyst of change across all industries and societies, and the life science translation market no less so. The underlying trends toward working from home with online translation tech and translation management systems have increased, and are going to accelerate.

If you are cutting costs in a risky environment, worried about human capacity for translation, postediting machine translation (PEMT) looks even more appealing. It will be likely that despite slower decision making as a result of decentralized management, it will make more sense to move forward with PEMT engines and suppliers to reduce costs and automation. Indeed, the buzz word that has been around for many years may now finally be coming into the workflow of even more translators in 2020 and onward.

China tensions

It is not just overall demand that may be affected by Covid-19; the language pair balance may also shift. Covid-19 has catalyzed the already preexisting strained US-China relations, as well as reduced travel between the two countries. Will the Chinese <> English pairs maintain their historic trends within this context?

It still remains unclear, but if tensions continue to escalate and further trade barriers increase, then this is a language pair for the life science industry that would likely suffer. Ironically, the very interconnectedness of the world that helped create such high demand for life science translation previously now facilitates the spread of a disease that just might need to be cured by a global pharmaceutical effort — but that also threatens the world order that led to its rise.

Government intervention

Life science companies are not operating in a vacuum. The government stimulus and support packages provided across the globe have helped stabilize the stock markets and in particular defensive industries such as the pharmaceutical sector. It has also directly increased cash flow into the balance sheets by way of loans to large and small enterprises, and grants to consumers.

Higher liquidity and higher share prices can’t negatively hurt translation demands, but this is finance, and actual translation demand is more subtle and unknown. With more money, a decision to re-open a clinical trial becomes easier. But this might be offset by the fact that a distributed workforce is slower at making management decisions. The safer option with cash, rather than risk on spending, would be saving until the crisis has passed, just in case there are further shocks. The number of unknowns are rising, and this makes managers cautious.

Aside from the increase in Covid-19-related communications and the defensive nature of the sector, the pressures are mostly downward on the demand from pharmaceutical companies for translation — both on cost and demand. However, when looking at other industries, the sector is still comparatively robust, and will likely remain stable or at worst only at a slight decline. Initial reports indicate that this may indeed be the case. Despite many varied and subtle shifts, the overall impact is smaller than feared.

The UK-based ATC recently surveyed translation companies, and reported that 75% have seen a sharp decline in demand — over 50% in May. That is incredibly significant; however, it is not specific to the life science translation market.

In the meantime, we can remain united and work together toward a cure. As we step out from the darkness of our isolation and into a new world, the life science translation industry has a significant role to play in that mission. That alone has cemented its importance as an industry and improved its reputation.