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By Mercedes Li and Traci Rosenthal
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists around the world, many are looking to the pharmaceutical industry as a beacon of hope, eagerly awaiting news of a viable vaccine or treatment that can curtail the deadly effects of the virus on our health, society, and economy. Putting all our trust in the industry is, however, a far cry from the lousy public image that was associated with big pharma just a few years back.
Earlier this month, Bunny Ellerin, Director of the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program, spoke with Dr. Roy Vagelos '54PS, former chairman and CEO of Merck & Co., current chairman of Regeneron, and benefactor of the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons about the current status of the industry, including the challenge of developing rapid drug treatments for the masses. During the discussion, which was co-sponsored by The Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics and the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program, Vagelos also touched upon his own experiences living and leading through past pandemics—he was a resident in the early 1950s when U.S. polio cases reached their peak, and later led Merck in developing treatments to fight HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s.
Vagelos has always been a lead-by-example pioneer in the pharmaceutical industry. When faced with a dilemma, empathy, not currency, is the driving force behind his decision-making. For instance, in 1987, Dr. Vagelos started a once-in-a-lifetime program at Merck that donated Mectizan to poverty-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa ravaged by river blindness. At the time, no singular nation had the budget to purchase and disseminate the drug, so Merck, along with the World Bank and The Gates Foundation stepped in. “We decided the only way to do it was to contribute the drug free to anyone in the world who needs it for as long as it's required,” Vagelos said.
As the conversation turned to present day and the issues associated with a COVID-19 treatment, Vagelos said that collaboration between private and public companies, as well as the government will be vital to meet demand. And, with so many players in the mix, close attention will need to be paid to the science. “I like the idea of figuring out exactly what the problem is for any one disease, and then targeting that and understanding the molecule that's causing the problem and neutralizing it,” Vagelos explained. “I'm an old fashioned, show-me-the-evidence type of doctor, and I'll stick to that.”
Fortunately, coronavirus has a relatively slow mutation speed, which is a potential advantage for researchers currently working on vaccines. “Smart people who have been working on vaccines their entire careers are gearing up to move toward this one,” Vagelos said.
When Ellerin asked Dr. Vagelos for a key piece of leadership advice that he’s gleaned throughout his seven decades in the industry, he focused on the people. Even with all the advances in science and technology, Vagelos acknowledged that recruiting and retaining the right people is crucial to innovation and success. “I think that medicine is the most exciting career that anyone could have because it allows you to impact the health of individuals,” Vagelos said. “But, one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do is to make sure that the best people from the best medical schools around the world were being recruited into the company.”
One unexpected, but powerful, outcome of distributing Mectizan for free resulted in Merck attracting the best and most qualified talent to its team. “It’s an example of corporate philanthropy and people love to work for a company that is willing to contribute,” said Dr. Vagelos. He has continued to attract top talent to Regeneron, where researchers are in the process of developing an antibody treatment that could be available by fall 2020.
“I've always said that where there is science one could be very optimistic. In the 70 years since I started at Columbia Medical School, I've seen every hurdle overcome in time,” said Dr. Vagelos. “In the case of the devastating coronavirus disease, long-term I’m very optimistic, short-term I just cannot predict. But it's going to happen because people recognize that it's important and exciting. Brilliant young people are going into the field to go after this disease.”