COVID-19 Update from Senior Pharma Executives

Karin Briner

Karin Briner, Vice President and Head, Global Discovery Chemistry, Novartis (NIBR)

What are some of the important ways in which the global pharmaceutical industry is coordinating to assist in mitigating the impact of COVID-19?

In the face of the global crisis, pharmaceutical companies have come together with partners across industry and academia to respond in a number of ways. It is critical that we act quickly and decisively, and with this in mind we have mobilized Novartis R&D resources, medicines, clinical expertise and philanthropic aid. We are engaging with COVID-19 response consortia at various stages of maturity and thus far have committed support in discovery and clinical investigation to the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome and MasterCard. As a near term effort, multiple Novartis medicines are being evaluated for the treatment of people with COVID-19 infection. Working together, we will not only respond to the current pandemic, but will better prepare for future threats.

Nick Kartsonis, Senior VP Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Clinical Research, Merck

What are some of the important ways in which the global pharmaceutical industry is coordinating to assist in mitigating the impact of COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a generational challenge to the global community, and the biopharmaceutical sector is rising to meet it. The biopharmaceutical sector is uniquely positioned, individually and collectively, to help the world respond to this pandemic on an unprecedented scale. A notable example is the recently announced collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

At Merck, we have enormous experience in inventing antivirals and vaccines. We have a team of scientists assessing internally available antiviral candidates and vaccine assets for potential to impact COVID-19. Merck has shown with our efforts with Ebola, that we know what it takes to get a vaccine across the finish line in a global public health emergency like the one we are facing now.

But we also appreciate that the path to a new medicine or vaccine is not fast, nor is it easy.  As was the case with many diseases, we are optimistic that our industry’s efforts will create new tools to combat this coronavirus.  This pandemic underscores the need for our company and our industry to continue to invest in research for the greatest health threats.  

What are the primary challenges the pharmaceutical industry confronts in quickly developing and producing a vaccine to protect against COVID-19?

One of the most significant challenges is that this is a new pathogen not previously known until late 2019. Prior coronaviruses are different and there are currently no treatment options. We applaud early efforts including the rapid work done to sequence SARS-CoV-2 the virus and define its structure but there are currently no standardized animal models or well defined, validated assays available and relatively little information regarding pathogen-host interactions.

At this stage, screening of compound libraries may provide some leads from which to develop antiviral agents but work needs to be done to ensure safety and efficacy. Similarly new technologies such as mRNA vaccines hold promise, but the more standard, familiar, tried and tested methods for vaccine development take time.

What does the nature of this outbreak – if anything – tell you about the prospects of future pandemics?

This underscores how we need to be better prepared for future such outbreaks. We are in a new world where globalization and our tendency to live close to each other in towns and cities makes it easier for these viruses to spread. These viruses can adapt rapidly as we have seen with similar outbreaks with SARS in 2003, MERS in 2011 and now SARS-Cov-2 in 2019/20.

In another 8 years or so, another virus may well emerge. A key learning for example is that what we develop to address the challenges of today needs to have a broad scope with application towards future potential outbreaks. Vaccines and antivirals, if possible, need to target evolutionary conserved parts of the life cycle that may provide broad protection to other related viruses that may emerge in the future.

What are you learning during this pandemic that will influence how you approach drug development in the future?

Our company has been working in infectious diseases field since 1939 and in vaccines for more than 100 years. For example, today we are one of only a few companies that continue to conduct research to identify new antibiotic candidates. We also recently gained the first approval for an Ebola vaccine.

This pandemic reinforces that we have made the right decision and indeed the need to sustain this important work to help protect us for the future.

Annaliesa Anderson, Chief Scientific Officer Bacterial Vaccines/Hospitals, Pfizer

What are the primary challenges the pharmaceutical industry confronts in quickly developing and producing a vaccine to protect against COVID-19?

Traditionally vaccine development for a new pathogen takes many years. SARS-CoV-2 the virus that caused COVID-19, took everyone by surprise. Before a vaccine may be developed, we need to learn about the pathogenicity of the virus, how it causes disease and conversely how a vaccine can prevent it. So now picture a pandemic situation, like COVID-19, where we need to compress this long and complex process to get an effective vaccine to society as quickly as possible. This requires strong expert scientific acumen and good communication across many different lines.

Scientists, clinicians and strategists have been mobilized to identify thoughtful innovative approaches that may change the way we develop vaccines. Once an antigen is identified and passes preclinical studies, there needs to be close collaboration between the vaccine developer and regulatory agencies, as ultimately, we need to make sure that the vaccines that are developed are safe and efficacious. Finally, the capacity to make and distribute the vaccine globally should be put into place much sooner than would normally be done and at a much greater scale, while still maintaining quality control requirements. 

Charlotte Allerton, Head of Medicine Design, Pfizer

What are you learning during this pandemic that will influence how you approach drug development in the future?

Scientists across healthcare are driven by a desire to positively influence human health.  This serious global health pandemic, brought about by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and resulting COVID-19 disease, is bringing an unprecedented challenge leading to tremendous urgency, flexibility, creativity and collaboration in the different approaches being taken to discover and develop vaccines and therapeutics across pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical companies, academics and regulators amongst others.  

Our goal is to learn from this unique time and apply these learnings not only to COVID-19 but also to the other life-threatening diseases for which we are working to bring forward life changing medicines.  Examples include data sharing, parallel investments and creative pre-clinical and clinical approaches in an effort to expedite timelines to patient studies. The courage being displayed by many in ignoring the fear of failure and pushing for success is exceptional and should strengthen the healthcare system's ability to positively impact COVID-19, as well as other diseases as we take these learnings forward.

What are some of the important ways in which the global pharmaceutical industry is coordinating to assist in mitigating the impact of COVID-19?

Rallying, at an unprecedented level
. It’s not uncommon to see a sense of urgency across the pharmaceutical industry in responding to healthcare challenges. But the scope and scale we’re seeing it at now is incredible—and it’s uncovering opportunities for collaboration within and across companies that may not have been noticed before.

Thinking creatively to find solutions to safely bring treatments to patients as soon as possible. The drug discovery process has a lot of steps, and a lot of complexity. There’s good reason for this—designing and developing a medicine to be both safe and effective is anything but straightforward—but in the case of a sudden global pandemic, we’re challenged to ask whether there’s a different way to go about these steps to be as efficient as possible. This is not without risk, but we’re seeing people across the industry rise to the occasion to really be bold. How might this inform additional drug discovery efforts moving forward?

An unequivocal sense that we are all in this together. Because different companies prioritize working on different therapeutic areas, there isn’t often an enormous and simultaneous global effort for one disease to the level we’re seeing it now. A key element of this phenomenon is that while not everyone is feeling acute symptoms of COVID-19 right now or mourning the loss of a loved one, everyone knows how it feels to have their life suddenly and drastically affected by this pandemic. It’s bringing everyone together even though we’re all by necessity physically distant. 

From AstraZeneca

What are some of the important ways in which the global pharmaceutical industry is coordinating to assist in mitigating the impact of COVID-19?

AstraZeneca is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic consistent with our values to follow the science, put patients first and do the right thing. Ways in which we are doing this include:

  • Engaging with international health authorities, governments and industry partners in response to the pandemic. For example, we have provided our science and technology expertise to authorities including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA).
  • Donating nine million face masks to support healthcare workers around the world as they respond to the COVID-19 global pandemic. AstraZeneca has partnered with the World Economic Forum’s COVID Action Platform, created with the support of the WHO, to identify countries in greatest need.
  • Mobilizing our research efforts to discovering novel coronavirus-neutralizing antibodies as a treatment to prevent COVID-19 disease. Our R&D teams have been working expeditiously to identify monoclonal antibodies to progress towards clinical trial evaluation as a treatment to prevent COVID-19. More than 50 virology, immunology, respiratory, and protein engineering experts across research, clinical, regulatory, and manufacturing are placing the highest priority on developing a treatment to minimize the global impact of the disease. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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