This year our industry has worked tirelessly to combat the COVID-19 virus, including developing effective therapeutics to treat COVID-19 and vaccines to prevent future infections. At the same time, the nation’s political environment remained turbulent, and systemic societal issues were brought to the forefront, all while we continued to socially distance and readjust our work and personal lives around the pandemic.
I had the opportunity to connect with outgoing PhRMA chairman Giovanni Caforio, Chairman and CEO of Bristol Myers Squibb, about the remarkable year that was 2020, how the innovative biopharmaceutical industry will continue to address patients’ needs, and why he is hopeful for the future.
Stephen Ubl (SU): While this year has been challenging for us all, there have been bright spots, like watching people, companies and governments work together to fight this pandemic. I think people are starting to see just how difficult the R&D process is and how our industry works on behalf of patients. How do you think COVID-19 will impact the publics’ long-term appreciation of science and the industry?
Giovanni Caforio (GC): I think the pandemic and the response of the pharmaceutical industry has given the public intimate insight into the way this industry works – the complexity of processes related to developing and testing treatments, the investment and infrastructure needed to advance them, and the real value medicines can provide in advancing human health. When medicines and vaccines suddenly become topics of intense interest for everyone in the world, the role of industry and our researchers in advancing science and addressing public health challenges becomes more prominent and better understood.
That said, COVID-19 has amplified many challenges facing health care systems around the world. And with COVID-19 cases again on the rise, we are not out of the woods yet. We know as an industry we can do better in many areas. We will continue to build on the fruitful learnings we have gained from combatting COVID-19, which have demonstrated the positive impact of greater levels of collaboration and the role of technology in medicine development. Elsewhere, we can do more and have a significant role to play in contributing to addressing health inequalities. Many companies are instituting real change to ensure diverse communities are represented in the medicine development process, while also establishing strategies to ensure all patients can obtain the medicines they need, regardless of socioeconomic, racial, and geographical differences.
Our progress and initial successes demonstrate the possibilities inherent in medical innovation and what can be achieved when the world’s scientists, researchers, governments and health organizations join together to promote the development of innovative medicines. It is important that we do not lose the momentum created during the last few months.
SU: We’re going to see new faces in Washington and state capitals soon. As we look to the future of health care, what are some policies you want to see addressed to improve the lives of patients?
GC: The COVID-19 crisis has created an environment of unprecedented collaboration, both among pharmaceutical companies but also across industries and sectors. Our efforts to identify and develop medicines to treat and prevent COVID-19 have required close cooperation with U.S. and global health authorities and many other entities – including governments.
I think that the past year, which saw us adopt partnerships to make progress, has set the stage for renewed, constructive conversations with policymakers in Washington D.C. and state capitals on solutions that help patients access their medicines.
The United States’ system has allowed us to drive forward the innovation needed to combat COVID-19 and other serious diseases and those incentives should be upheld. But we know our system isn’t perfect. COVID-19 has highlighted fault lines, such as the inequities in our health care system, and the need for affordable access to care.
Policymakers at the state and federal levels have the opportunity to reset and refocus their efforts to ensure all patients have affordable out of pocket expenses for their medicines. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility to help patients whose insurance, or lack thereof, leaves them with high out of pocket costs. You’re seeing many companies do that today with enhanced patient support programs for those in need and access solutions and initiatives for underserved communities.
I’m hopeful that 2021 sees patient-centered policy solutions on the agenda in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across the country.
SU: As you close out your time as board chair at PhRMA, what are the things you’re proudest of as chairman and that make you most hopeful for our industry moving forward?
GC: This past year has been challenging for so many on a number of levels. Our industry and workforce are no different. Yet, we’ve continued to confront the COVID-19 crisis head on under challenging circumstances while continuing to deliver for patients suffering from other diseases and conditions. The resilience of our employees and the dedication to addressing urgent human health crises underscore why I am so proud of the work we do day in and day out. That has always been the case, but this year’s unique circumstances make it even more true.
To that end, I am immensely gratified when I see what our industry has accomplished in the past year: testing new and existing treatments, developing vaccines, sharing the learnings from our research and clinical trials to help advance new therapies quickly, and exploring ways to rapidly upscale manufacturing and broaden distribution as soon as we have approved vaccines and other treatments.
I am deeply hopeful that the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis will result in a more collaborative and nimble industry, one even better suited to supporting and protecting communities across the United States and the world.
As always, you can stay up-to-date with the work the biopharmaceutical industry is doing to combat COVID-19 here.