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Covid-19 outbreak: pharma’s big players discuss pandemic response

By Allie Nawrat 20 Mar 2020 (Last Updated March 20th, 2020 16:14)

Industry organisation IFPMA organised a briefing on 19 March with high-level executives from five global pharma giants: Eli Lilly, Johnson and Johnson, Roche, Sanofi and Takeda. They discussed how committed the industry is to leveraging its combined expertise to resolve this global crisis, as well as to ensure any vaccines or treatments developed will be accessible to everyone who needs them.

Covid-19 outbreak: pharma’s big players discuss pandemic response
Pharmaceutical companies are also currently facing uncertain times. Credit: Shutterstock

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Since the Covid-19 outbreak first emerged into the public consciousness in mid-January this year, the pharma industry has been working hard to repurpose existing anti-viral drugs and fast-track vaccine development for this novel coronavirus.

During an International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) briefing, the organisation’s director-general Thomas Cueni noted how far the pharma industry had come in a few short months, stating how much the industry benefitted from the Chinese authorities’ move to quickly share the genetic sequence of Covid-19.

IFPMA president and Eli Lilly CEO and chairman David Ricks stated how committed the pharma industry is to “play our part” and put the full force of its expertise behind resolving the Covid-19 pandemic.

Importance of industry-wide collaboration

This situation requires unprecedented levels of partnership between all stakeholders, Cueni noted. Ricks stated: “I have never seen the kind of collaboration across industry partners, biotech, academia that I am seeing now.” He added: “We are sending a clear signal of how seriously industry is taking the pandemic and the need to act as one team.”

Contributing to the IFPMA-chaired discussion, Johnson & Johnson chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels explained the industry has the technology and existing know-how, but the only way to advance candidates into clinical trials as quickly as possible is to work with regulators and the clinical community.

Takeda global vaccines business unit president Rajeev Venkayya explains this doesn’t mean industry should work on the same, singular vaccine approach. Instead, there is value from various groups working simultaneously on many different approaches, as it means there is a higher likelihood of a safe and efficacious vaccine emerging more quickly.

Better collaboration will also enable the pharma industry to overcome its primary challenge in vaccine development and commercialisation: manufacturing capacity. Stoffels noted that “the quantity [of vaccine] needed will be unprecedented”, so there is a need for companies to share and gear up their manufacturing capacity.

Pharma’s commitment to accessible and affordable treatments

Venkayya agreed with the other participants to the IFPMA discussion that collaboration is vital. He picked out the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) as “the perfect organisation to coordinate activities” around Covid-19. Another central tenet of CEPI, Venkayya noted, is equitable, affordable access to any drugs or vaccines created against the virus.

Ensuring access for everyone who needs anti-viral drugs or vaccines against Covid-19 is something that the pharma industry representatives committed themselves to during the briefing. Ricks noted: “I am yet to see a single person ask the questions: who will get the credit or how will we get paid? Industry is committed to resolve this problem.” Stoffels emphasised the problem is not about the price of vaccine, it is about ensuring access to it.

When asked about how to prioritise vaccine supply, Sanofi executive vice-president David Loew commented this would need to be discussed with governments, but that pharma would always make sure it was equitable distribution. Ricks  described the pandemic as “a human crisis, not a national one” so the industry must ensure scarce resources get to those most in need.

The primary reason why pharma normally justifies high prices for drugs is because of the expense of large-scale research and development (R&D work). However, Ricks noted the industry does not have a capital resource problem, instead this is more of a human resource issue.

To this end, the industry wants its key scientists to be viewed as essential workers in those countries engaged in lockdowns. In addition, individual companies have been seeking to protect the health of their critical staff by asking non-critical workers to stay at home and providing essential workers with protective clothing.