Interview with Heinz Schmidt, Director of Merck Life Science, Russia & CIS, on the situation in the pharmaceutical industry associated with COVID-19.
Is it possible to consider the coronavirus outbreak as force majeure for the industry or is it still a chance to achieve a new level of understanding of the nature of viruses, use of the data in R&D?
If we specifically look on R&D activities, we definitely can see a big push to further advance our understanding of how the virus impacts our immune system and how this helps to produce vaccines with sustainable immunity. There is no doubt that we will learn important lessons from the current situation. with researchers using these data to develop better tools to battle future pandemics.
The companies of what segment are leading now in the development of medicines and vaccines against Covid-19? Can the consolidation of efforts by the companies of different business segments accelerate the development of a therapy to treat the patients with a coronavirus infection or is the finance taking a great part here?
On March 26, a consortium of healthcare and life sciences companies together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced an important collaboration to accelerate the development, manufacture, and delivery of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for Covid-19. We are proud to be part of this group. We are making efforts all over the world to improve cooperation between local research institutes, who are part of the Academia structure and the big players in Biotech Industry. All partners contribute a range of assets, resources, and expertise needed to identify effective and scalable solutions to the pandemic, which is affecting billions worldwide.
In your opinion, how much time will it take approximately to develop a full-featured vaccine against the new coronavirus? Will the vaccine be necessary, if the coronavirus outbreak goes away?
Researchers have stressed continuously that developing a vaccine will be crucial in the global fight against Covid-19. International cooperation and new technologies will be key. Our life science business, amongst others, provides solutions for scientists to detect and characterize viruses and to develop vaccines and therapies. Only recently Merck announced that it helped researchers from The Jenner Institute to reach a milestone in developing a platform for large-scale manufacturing of the Institute’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate.
What are the most important things happening in the industry at this stage?
What we need more than anything right now is a coordinated and collaborative approach on the part of the international community. We need to have close collaboration between authorities and healthcare companies, the scientific community, and NGOs. In particular, the public and private sector must cooperate even more intensively. Governments must rise to the challenge and enact a mass mobilization to secure critical supplies and prevent panic with a comprehensive approach spanning resources, services and information. Our top three challenges are:
- Keeping the public health and medical system going
- Keeping our productivity high in this time of social distancing:
- Deep reliance on the global supply chain
- Social behavior and our reliance on each other (e.g., closing borders)
- Maintaining productivity in the office (e.g., virtual, safety protocols)
- Bringing diagnostics, treatments and vaccines forward (in this order)
As many companies have had to switch over to an online mode in full or in part, then are there the “advantages” and “disadvantages” for the producers of new medicines?
We all have found ourselves in an unfamiliar situation in terms of business operations. Naturally, it is not so easy to adapt to the new conditions; however, we have managed to shift our activities into a new mode. For instance, about a month ago we launched our Lanexo™ systems, a new digital laboratory informatics solution designed to drastically reduce time in labs and improve data quality and traceability.
The current pandemic is a great test, but it is also an occasion to try new methods of business process engineering. Once the pandemic situation is over and we are back to a normal regimen, some of those digital communication methods will continue to be used in our business process. In any case, the work in the laboratory will always stay an important part of R&D activities for pharmaceutical and especially biotech industry.
Do you think that it is not worth rushing by all the industry into a search for solutions to COVID-19 only, given that other diseases are here to stay and new drugs are necessary for lots of patients, especially when we mention orphan diseases?
The world is facing an unprecedented pandemic with extensive consequences for each of us and the societies we live in. As mentioned before business continuity is of utmost importance for us. Our healthcare business supplies medicines for those who are among the most vulnerable in this pandemic, patients affected by other serious diseases. In these challenging times we are working hard every day to make sure that patients can count on us. We are prioritizing for Covid-19-related needs, but continue to provide products and services to customers who are manufacturing treatments for other diseases and conditions, including cell and gene therapy.
If we look forward, is there any panacea for such outbreaks or will the science play a “catching-up” role?
Infectious diseases are one of the greatest threats to mankind, and in fact, researchers and epidemiologists have predicted these kinds of scenarios for some time already. As is the case for new drugs, we see big progress in developing more targeted therapies. Researchers are now developing weapons against newly emerging pandemics and will reach another stage of speeding up valuable results for vaccine developments.
What regulatory decisions adopted during the pandemic period do you consider as most successful or correct for the industry? Here again – has the pandemic helped with settlement of any supply chain-related issues, which have not been settled for years but for this situation?
So far, local regulatory decisions were well communicated, and we were able to act accordingly. The industry really needs support regarding supply chain arrangements and drugs delivery to the end users. Finally, of course, we have seen some specific areas where regulatory measures have been accelerated by the crisis, for example in registration of new drugs and online sales of OTC and RX drugs. There is no doubt this is a full-time job for many people in our organization, and what remains essential is that everyone share a common understanding of the situation. With the pandemic moving from one region to another, it is simply not possible to solve problems at all the borders at the same time. We encountered countries closing their borders, and as a distributor of essential products regarding public health needs, we received quick help from governments to resolve border issues. With some airlines operating at 5 percent capacity, we encountered complications with the supply chain, and fortunately, we were able to negotiate with freight companies to address these issues. We have found that deep relationships built on respect, trust and collaboration with the logistics industry and government officials are critical.