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Around the world, governments and businesses are looking on with huge anticipation as pharmaceuticals companies search for viable vaccines against Covid-19. Today, we were joined by Ben Osborn, UK managing director of Pfizer to talk about that process, and how they as a company have adapted to working during the pandemic. As we approach the weekend, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI gave a round-up of the key updates for business.
Here's what they discussed:
- The economic picture
- Updates on government guidance and financial packages
- The race towards a vaccine
- Treatments for Covid-19
- Public health and the economy.
The economic picture
As the week draws to a close, Carolyn said that “this feels like a moment almost to pause and reflect and to take stock.” Announcements over the past week have offered up some “really tough” news. The World Trade Organisation has predicted a fall in trade between 12 and 32% this year. While ONS data on UK GDP showed a 2% decline in the first quarter of the year and a “sharp monthly decline in March,” she said. Given the number of people on furlough across the UK, labour market figures are “disguising the true picture” on unemployment. The reduction in hours worked and record increases in people claiming unemployment benefit give better indications of the seriousness of the unemployment to come.
“One of the areas where we need to give the most thought is actually about the looming risk of mass unemployment,” said Carolyn. We need to be prepared for it: “if we can think ahead and plan for that and get ahead of it I think we can do a lot about it.”
Rishi Sunak has begun talking in “very frank terms about the fact that we are in the deepest recession in living memory,” she said. But there is some room for optimism; this could be the moment to think about solutions and “big ideas” for the future of the economy.
Updates on government guidance and financial packages
Many businesses are concerned about the next stage of the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and how it will impact them. Carolyn said to expect updates next week on the idea of a partial furlough and on the level of the employer contribution to the JRS.
On the question of PPE, Carolyn said that the CBI has been working closely with Lord Deighton, the government’s PPE tsar to iron out some of the queries they are hearing from business.
When asked about the regional differences in the financial impact of Covid-19 in the UK, Carolyn noted that although the virus has had an uneven effect, most of the government packages such as the JRS and loan schemes had rightly been countrywide, “that is what has created speed and simplicity of the support measures.” Going forward, we will have to think hard about regional industrial strategy and “turbo charge” developments that were already in place pre-Covid.
The race towards a vaccine
Our guest on today’s webinar was Ben Osborn, UK managing director of Pfizer. He spoke about the huge amount of collaboration and partnership he has seen in the search for the vaccine. “The scientific community across industry, academia and NHS, both here in the UK and more globally, has come together around Covid-19 in a way I have never ever seen before,” he said. The race to create a vaccine is not a competition between companies, “it’s a race against the virus.”
Ben has seen massive acceleration in the usual steps and protocols needed to progress vaccine candidates to clinical trials. Speaking about Pfizer’s work, Ben said that “the work that we have done would typically have taken 12 months or so, we have done that in six weeks.” They now have four vaccine candidates in early phase clinical studies on human patients.
Under normal circumstances it can take up to five years to develop a vaccine, said Ben. But during the Covid-19 crisis there has been such an increase in collaboration and a much greater appetite for risk among industry, academia and regulators. Should the science be successful (“a big if” according to Ben) we could see a viable vaccine towards the end of 2020 with millions of doses available and hundreds of millions available in 2021. Although Ben noted that we cannot be reliant on any single company to deliver this.
One of the key aspects to think about in parallel is to consider the manufacturing capacity needed to distribute the vaccine globally. “We’re going to need to bring this vaccine to every corner of the globe,” he said.
Treatments for Covid-19
As the Covid-19 has progressed across the globe, the scientific community has learned more about the complications and the impact of the disease. “There is no globally known or approved standard of care but there is some very exciting science coming through,” said Ben.
At Pfizer, the company has searched through its library of molecules that were identified as appropriate for the treatment of SARS in 2003 and found a candidate molecule for the treatment of Covid. This molecule is now undergoing early stage testing. However, Ben explained that in some cases, antiviral drugs can take longer to develop than vaccines.
Public health and the economy
“The one thing that has come out super clear over the last eight to ten weeks or so is the importance of human health to the health of the economy,” said Ben. He thinks that the Covid-19 crisis will lead to a “different mindset” from government, the NHS, businesses and individuals about the importance of health and wellness.
“If you do not have a healthy population, frankly the economy can very quickly unwind,” said Ben. Over the past few years, healthcare spending has been seen as a “cost” or a “drain,” but we should now view health as an “asset” and healthcare as an “investment.”
Key questions we answered:
- Carolyn, what do you think are the next steps to help businesses make the shift from ‘a new normal’ to ‘a new different’?
- Firstly, we need a successful restart, with interaction between reopening guidance and ongoing financial support.
- We’re working with the government to evolve the support schemes and business guidance in line with businesses’ insights and changing needs.
- It’s important to note that the guidance was welcomed by business, and most businesses found the guidance easy to understand.
- But, as we’ve highlighted to government, there are still some challenges to address:
- The key enablers, such as PPE, transport and schools
- The increasing concern for hotels and restaurants, and the fear that social distancing will mean many of them stay closed permanently as they cannot be profitable
- Firms are also keen to see as unified an approach as possible to restart across the UK.
- Last Friday, got Welsh govt’s recovery roadmap. Traffic light system, to enable phased easing
- Secondly, we need a relentless focus on growth. There’s been a lot of discussion already about how we pay for all this. But for business, the focus for the next 12 months at least must be on generating growth.
- The world now is very different to how it was in 2008, and this crisis is very different to anything we’ve seen before. So we need to think about it differently, building every bridge to growth we can, including trade.
- And then, next year, I think we can begin that conversation about how it's paid for. The more immediate need must be to minimise long-term scarring, particularly by helping people to retrain and helping businesses to secure recovery.
- Then, finally, we need to commit to the concept of ‘building back better’, with government, business, unions and other stakeholders working together.
- Ben, what is the state of play in the pharmaceutical industry at the moment?
- Our industry, the scientific community, academia, and the NHS have come together on Covid-19 in a way that I have never seen before.
- There are a number of issues we need to consider:
- What innovation is required to treat patients who have contracted Covid-19? And what do those treatments look like?
- From a longer-term perspective, what is it going to take to control the virus?
- What lessons can we learn on how to manage such pandemics in the future?
- On vaccines, there are many programs taking place across the world and in the UK.
- At Pfizer, we are partnering with a small biotechnology firm. The work we have done so far would normally take 12 months – but we’ve managed to do it in just six weeks. This has resulted in early phase clinical studies taking place around the world.
- We hope by the summer we will have a viable vaccine to conduct a trial. We are also looking at the manufacturing capacity required to bring the vaccine to every corner of the world.
- Ben, what is a reasonable timeline for the delivery of a vaccine?
- In the traditional linear model of developing a vaccine, it can take up to five years.
- In this case, with the agility and appetite for risk that has been taken, if the science is successful, we could have a viable vaccine developed at the back end of this year.
- We have announced publicly that we could have millions of doses available at the end of this year, and then have hundreds of millions of doses available by 2021.
- We will need multiple vaccines given the sheer number of people that we will have to treat.
- The traditional approach to developing a vaccine usually involves injecting a very small dose of the virus to create an immune response. The approach we are taking is to teach the body to react to and manage the virus itself. This requires different volumes of the underlying vaccine.
- Ben, how do you distribute these vaccines to people on a global scale? And how can we ensure distribution is fair?
- We will need to partner and work with the NHS and governments.
- Those that are most vulnerable should be first in line for receiving vaccines.
- We’ve already seen that there are particular parts of our population, with concomitant disease, that have unfortunately suffered more with Covid-19.
- But ultimately, we have to make sure this vaccine – if successful – gets to everybody.
- Can we reasonably expect a global vaccination programme by the end of 2021?
- We will need to ensure we have the right collaboration across countries, through organisations like the World Health Organisation. We need to ensure we are getting these vaccines to the right patients at the right time.
- This is why we need multiple vaccines to be successful. There is no prize for one individual research group or company – there needs to be collaboration across multiple groups.
- As we come out of this crisis, to what extent do you think people will have to take responsibility for their own health to contain any future spreads?
- I think we have to have an honest reflection on what the data has shown.
- We are starting to see signs that obesity, smoking and underlying health conditions can make the outcomes for Covid-19 worse. I think people need to be aware of that fact.
- The government and NHS should focus more on a prevention agenda. This could involve looking at how to prevent diabetes, strokes and cardiovascular disease in the first place.