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Led by GSK, Novartis, drugmakers rediscover mission in COVID-19 collaboration

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the pharmaceutical industry a chance to revisit its mission to improve the quality of human life, with a new generation of leaders collaborating in unprecedented ways to try to find a rapid resolution to the global outbreak.

For an industry whose innovative medical advances have often been eclipsed by the cost of medicines and a perceived lack of transparency, the CEOs of both Novartis AG and GlaxoSmithKline PLC represent a new generation of CEOs who are mindful of their responsibility to society, according to Mick Cooper, an analyst at a London-based pharmaceutical consultancy.

"It's interesting that it appears to be led by Novartis, under the new leadership with Vas Narasimhan, and also GSK's Emma Walmsley," Cooper said. "It shows Big Pharma going back to its roots and recognizing the social contract it has in helping the wider community."

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GSK CEO Emma Walmsley

Source: GSK

Calling this "the time for maximum collaboration," GSK CEO Emma Walmsley unveiled a "groundbreaking" deal with French rival Sanofi on April 14. As the biggest vaccine manufacturer in the world, GSK will contribute its adjuvant which boosts the immune response — to an antigen — which stimulates an immune response provided by Sanofi. The Paris-based company, which is also one of the top global vaccine manufacturers, is run by Paul Hudson, a former Novartis executive who took over as CEO in September 2019.

"The world is facing an unprecedented global health threat with enormous indirect consequences," Walmsley said on a conference call with reporters. "Responding to this is at the heart of our purpose as a company, and, as well as protecting our people and ensuring delivery of essential medicines, at GSK, we are determined to help with solutions."

Trials will be started in the next few months, with a COVID-19 vaccine potentially available by the second half of 2021. Analysts at SVB Leerink are skeptical of the accelerated timelines, pointing out that side effects can take six to 12 months to emerge and it is usually a multi-year effort to secure approval.

With only a handful of industry players able to manufacture vaccines, GSK which cannot keep up with demand for its blockbuster shingles vaccine Shingrix has the prized ability to be able to make the highly technical shots, and even more crucially, to make millions of them at its sprawling plant in Rixensart, Belgium.

Still, should one of the three vaccines currently in clinical trials gain regulatory approval ahead of the GSK-Sanofi attempts, Walmsley was open-ended about GSK's ability to help out with manufacturing a COVID-19 vaccine. The World Health Organization listed 70 vaccines in various stages of development as of April 11.

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Even companies that do not have vaccine businesses are rallying round, matching funding with resources and expertise. The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.K.'s The Wellcome Trust Ltd. and Mastercard Inc. has brought together 15 companies that will share their libraries of molecular compounds and quickly screen them for potential against COVID-19, with any successful hits moving into trials in as little as two months.

Novartis, which exited vaccines as part of its 2015 asset swap with GSK, spearheaded another collaboration between the Gates Foundation and a consortium of life sciences companies to accelerate the development, manufacture and delivery of treatments for COVID-19.

CEO Vas Narasimhan had been in charge of the group's U.S. vaccine business at the outbreak of H1N1 pandemic more than a decade ago and, in a New York Times interview last year, spoke of his deep concern that the world was not at all prepared for a pandemic. As co-chair of the consortium, he has brought together drugmakers including Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, Biomerieux (Suisse) Sa, Eisai Co. Ltd., Eli Lilly and Co., Gilead Sciences Inc., GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co. Inc., MERCK KGaA, Pfizer Inc., Sanofi and Novartis.

"We feel a deep shared responsibility to see if there are specific areas where collaboration across the life sciences industry and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can accelerate solutions to this pandemic," Narasimhan said, announcing the collaboration March 26. "Collective action is critical to ensure any promising studies into vaccines, drugs and diagnostics are quickly scaled to people around the world who are affected by this pandemic."

One company that does have a long-standing diagnostics business is fellow Basel, Switzerland-based Roche Holding AG. Considered extraneous to the pharmaceutical giant's core drug development business by some analysts, the unit has more than proven its worth by developing an early test for COVID-19, which it gave to the Chinese authorities when the outbreak first emerged. Now authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the test is being manufactured as fast as possible and sent out across the world to help governments test and track the spread of the virus. In addition, Roche will introduce a new antibody test early next month to help identify those already infected by the virus who have gained immunity.

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In the absence of their own diagnostic units, drugmakers including J&J and Cambridge, England-based AstraZeneca PLC are scanning existing medicines to see if they can be repurposed for use against COVID-19, supplying those that look promising free to clinical trials, as well as offering reagents for testing and personal protective equipment.

In the U.K., longstanding rivalries have been put aside and GSK has joined forces with AstraZeneca to pool their scientific know-how by establishing a laboratory at the University of Cambridge to address the shortage of tests, despite neither having specific diagnostics expertise.

GSK is involved in seven collaborations with academia and companies relating to the pandemic and has also increased production of pain relief tablets like Panadol. Meanwhile, two prominent GSK alumni are also playing an active role in reining in COVID-19.

After a 12-year career at the Brentford, England-based group, latterly as head of research and development, Patrick Vallance stepped down in 2017 to become the U.K. government's chief scientific adviser and head of science a role that had not caused many ripples of excitement until the outbreak of a global pandemic. Now leading the U.K. government's efforts to battle COVID-19, he is drawing on long-standing relationships across the industry to shape the country's response and actions.

WHO has appointed another GSK veteran, former CEO Andrew Witty, to co-lead a global approach to developing a COVID-19 vaccine.