For a network to battle outbreaks: Andrew Witty

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on January 15, 2018

ANDREW WITTY, Chief Executive, GlaxoSmithKline   -  Shashi Ashiwal

Glaxo’s global chief on diversity, empathetic pricing and preparing for ‘known unknowns’

“I can tell you, Ebola was less organised than flu, swine flu which was less well-organised than bird flu – we are getting worse (in terms of response), we are not getting better,” says Andrew Witty, Chief Executive of GlaxoSmithKline, giving us the backdrop to a recent “bio-defence” research proposal made by the British drugmaker.

Having been personally involved with the H1N1 (swine flu), H5N1 (bird flu) and Ebola outbreaks and the world’s reactionary response to control them, Witty says, “We need something fundamentally different... The world needs a network of capabilities which are doing work in peacetime so that we are better prepared for the war. What happens at the moment is essentially the world doesn’t focus on these issues until a war breaks out and then we panic on how do we fix it.”

GSK’s proposal to world governments, Witty says, involves dedicating a facility to permanently research Ebola-like threats the 15 “ known unknowns”.

Described by industry-watchers as a more “acceptable” face of the pharmaceutical industry, Witty has been outspoken on medicine pricing, urging the industry to be more “empathetic”. A recent interaction with Witty gave us some insights into his progressive approach on diversity gender, race and sexual orientation, which he says has “enriched” the company. Witty hands over the reins of GSK next March, after 32 years in the company, to Emma Walmsley.

Bio-defence mechanics

Explaining the research proposal, Witty says that every four-five years GSK could develop probably two vaccines, take it to a mid-stage in development and put it on the shelf. So, if there was a crisis it was ready to go. That requires proper dedicated research, he says.

An organisation has been created, supported by many governments and Wellcome Trust, called CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) with an independent governing structure. With this, the world goes from having nothing to having a “global asset of bio-defence” with contributions from universities and other companies.

“What we have today is, ‘Andrew, there’s a crisis, can you help?’ That’s literally what happens. Have you got a vaccine for this disease,” he says, giving a chilling insight into the state of unpreparedness that exists presently.

Diversity & empathy

On Walmsley's appointment, Witty says, “We now have a female CEO , I hope that’s going to inspire more people to be more ambitious. I hope more gay people want to be promoted in the company and I hope more non-white people get promoted, and I hope people who are of different religions get promoted. I don’t think this is just about gender, I think it’s about total diversity,” he says, elaborating on how internal resource groups representing the above mentioned groups help develop strategies for the company. Explaining why the pharmaceutical industry needs to be “much more balanced and thoughtful” about its pricing choices and its impact on access to medicine, he says, “It’s a shame that over the last 10-20 years, people have equated the success of research and development (R&D) with price… The surrogate marker of R&D success is whether you got a high price. I don’t agree with that. I think that’s a very misleading concept. I think the marker of great R&D is whether or not a lot of people benefited from it.” So the question is what’s the reasonable price which allows you to achieve a significant volume, he says.

Leaving corporates and employees with a thought beyond their immediate mission, Witty says, “Take the time to constantly be curious about the context in which we operate.” It is so important to be open and curious about what the big context is, he says, never mind the company you are in.

Published on November 11, 2016

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