The cover of the May 16, 2017, issue of TIME magazine featured a picture of one the scariest threats to the world. It was neither a picture of a mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb, nor the face of an infamously ruthless dictator. Rather, it was a picture of something rather invisible to the unaided human eye—the Ebola virus. The article, “The World Is Not Ready for the Next Pandemic,” (re)sounded the alarm for the scientific and international communities to take the increasing threat of pandemics more seriously and to incite action and collaboration among global health experts.
While the article points to the actions of government and civic society players, it fails to highlight the efforts of the private sector in preparing for and combatting emerging biothreats. Recently, the BSR Healthcare Working Group engaged several of its members, which represent many of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies, to elucidate their evolving and expanding role in pandemic preparedness. Global health security is everyone’s business, and examples from these companies demonstrate that collaborating and partnering is the only way forward.
Pandemics have the potential to bring national economies and international trade to a standstill. The World Bank estimates that the economies of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone lost US$2.2 billion in forgone economic growth in 2015 due to the Ebola crisis. According to the TIME article, the 2003 SARS epidemic, which killed fewer than 800 people, cost the global economy US$54 billion, much of it in lost trade, transportation disruption, and healthcare costs. The World Bank estimates that the toll from a severe flu pandemic could hit US$4 trillion.
When pandemics occur, local communities and national governments are not the only ones that are thrown into chaos and prompted to act quickly—vaccine producers shoulder the burden, too. For biopharmaceutical companies, vaccines have been traditionally developed and distributed under commercial frameworks that ensure profitability and economic sustainability. For diseases such as Ebola, Zika, and SARS, no real commercial market exists, yet it is expected that pharmaceutical companies will develop and produce solutions in record time, which comes with technical and regulatory challenges, vaccine development expenses, and opportunity cost from pausing other core vaccine programs.
Dr. Jean Lang, associate vice president of global R&D for Sanofi Pasteur, summarizes the challenge well: The system is not fit for purpose and needs to be rethought. As he explains, “It starts with changing the current mindset where the private sector is expected to develop vaccines at risk, without any visibility on a possible return on investment, which is utopian; we need to reach a point where private companies, governments, and health authorities become public health partners upstream to share the risks and benefits.” It’s about inventing a diversity of responses, he says, and “collectively deciding to step away from risk avoidance and move faster.”
GSK is tackling these challenges head on. When GSK got internal approval to move forward with Ebola vaccine development, they put hundreds of people on the project to condense a process that usually takes several years into a matter of months. In late 2016, GSK also opened a global R&D vaccines facility that has the capability to do full, end-to-end development and manufacturing, which is rare in the industry. Moreover, it is partnering with the U.S. government, PATH, and others to prepare for the next pandemic. According to Dr. Rip Ballou, vice president and head of GSK’s global vaccines R&D center in Rockville, Maryland, “GSK is working on a number of technology platforms that may speed up the process of vaccine discovery and manufacture, which could prove valuable during a health emergency. We are also in agreement that this requires collaboration between the public and private sectors, and we’re ready to play our part.”
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) understands this well. Dr. Alan Tennenberg, chief medical officer of global public health at J&J, works with government stakeholders and private-sector players to coordinate efforts around biopreparedness. Alongside the GE Foundation, J&J founded the Private Sector Roundtable for Global Health Security Agenda, which convenes 17 business players to work with governments and security networks to prepare for pandemics, epidemics, bioterrorism, and biosecurity. Furthermore, J&J co-leads the Global Pandemic Supply Chain Network, a public-private partnership that seeks to create a ready supply and network for response, prevention, and control. Private-sector players leverage their expertise in supply chain and logistics to enhance emergency response and avoid critical delays, waste of resources, and losses of lives. As Tennenberg elaborates, “Partnerships are essential. Success is not only private-private, but also private-public. It’s about openness, trust, and transparency.”
Another prime example of this type of collaboration is the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which raises funds and coordinates activities for vaccine development. The four companies we interviewed are all involved with CEPI, helping the coalition and its partners address the commercial challenge that biopreparedness presents and the increased legal liability of speedily testing vaccines on the market each time a biothreat emerges. Dr. Paula Annuziato, vice president and therapeutic area head of vaccines clinical research at Merck & Co., wants to change the perception that biopharmaceutical companies are investing in this area from profit-making motivation. According to Annuziato, “Misperceptions of industry’s intent and motivation can impede collaboration. It is more productive and effective to identify each coalition partner’s core capabilities and expertise and leverage them for the benefit of patients and health systems.”
The world may not yet be prepared for the next pandemic, but there is a growing coalition of private, public, and civil society partners working to change that and ensure that our increasingly interconnected global economy is safe and resilient. And while pharmaceutical companies have unique technical expertise to contribute to pandemic preparedness, every industry, from tech to energy, has a stake in contributing to strong and resilient health systems. Opportunities for partnership abound. We are all in it together.