“Efforts to get Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to every corner of the world has reinforced my belief in Pfizer to achieve the impossible”
Pfizer is one of the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical and biomedical companies. “Hospitals” magazine had the privilege to meet with Patrick van der Loo, Regional President for Africa & the Middle East – Pfizer to talk about his journey with Pfizer, the pandemic and the challenges they faced during this time, the company’s vision, among other issues. Below is the full interview:
You joined Pfizer in 1997, and in 2020 you were appointed Regional President for Africa and the Middle East. Can you tell us more about your journey with Pfizer?
Since first joining the team in Europe and then North America back in 2006, I’ve been fortunate enough to gather a wealth of experience at Pfizer across multiple business divisions (from marketing to business development), regions and offices. Early on in my career, I spent a fair amount of time in our New York headquarters, which gave me a real sense of how our business operates and placed me in great stead for what was to be the next significant move of my career to Asia.
Overseeing several markets as cluster lead, including India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, and Korea, I lived in Hong Kong, Japan, and Thailand. Living and experiencing these vast and diverse regions fundamentally shaped who I am personally and professionally. It was a rich and rewarding experience and allowed me to immerse myself in different cultures and learn about the dynamics of emerging markets.
Despite the many differences between all these geographies and the people who inhabit them, an underlying dynamism characterizes these emerging markets that make them exciting places to be. I feel the Middle East and Africa share this dynamism, and I thoroughly enjoy working with our patients and all our stakeholders in the market to deliver meaningful breakthroughs for patients.
The pandemic year was so challenging for all across the globe and especially to pharmaceutical companies. How did you feel to be part of a company that was one of the leaders fighting this pandemic?
Efforts to get Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to every corner of the world has reinforced my belief in Pfizer to achieve the impossible. More than a year following the outbreak of this global pandemic, our vaccine development and delivery achievements have demonstrated Pfizer’s remarkable ability to use its scale and heritage to deliver meaningful breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.
With the COVID-19 vaccine, we decided from day one to leverage decades of experience and expertise in vaccine development, testing, manufacturing, and distribution to make a vaccine for ALL patients – no matter where they live. To date, our vaccines have reached more than 120 countries and territories in every region of the world, and we are expanding that reach every day.
In addition, to accelerate our efforts to help save even more lives across the globe, we have pledged to provide 2 billion doses of our COVID-19 vaccine to low- and middle-income countries in 2021 and 2022 – 1 billion doses each year. As part of this pledge, Pfizer and BioNTech will provide 500 million doses at the not-for-profit price – 200 million in 2021 and 300 million in 2022 – to support multilateral efforts to address the surge of infection in many parts of the world. The government will, in turn, donate the doses to the 92 COVAX Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) countries as well as the member states of the African Union that are not already part of the AMC 92.
In my role as president of the Middle East and Africa, the implementation and execution of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is one of the first projects I oversaw regionally.
As part of this project, our team continues to collaborate with numerous governments and ministries on some of the earliest rollouts of the vaccine worldwide. Overall, working on this project has been a personal honor, knowing that our work makes a real difference in patients’ lives. It has also given me some great insights into the regional healthcare industry and the breakneck speeds at which authorities deliver innovations. It makes me highly motivated and excited to see what else will come out of our work in the region over the coming months and years ahead.
What were the challenges you faced during this time, and what were the lessons learned?
We have been operating here in AfME for over the past 60 years. We strive to become a reliable partner for countries fighting the pandemic in every corner of the globe and similarly across AfME. Following our experience with COVID-19, we now have learnings about regulatory processes, contracting, and rapid supply to ensure that our breakthrough medicines for some of the most urgent health threats reach even more people.
Our commitment to fighting infectious diseases doesn’t stop at medicine. For example, in low- and middle-income countries, we realize that health systems continue to be a big challenge. There is an urgent need to strengthen the systems, improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treat infectious diseases, particularly for underserved and vulnerable populations. Pfizer and The Pfizer Foundation, working with partners, are investing in multi-year commitments to improve health system resiliency, including training healthcare workers, strengthening supply chains, ensuring access to quality products, and supporting new technologies that help to improve diagnosis and data collection.
The mission statement of Pfizer is to deliver breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. Where is Pfizer in accomplishing this mission and purpose today?
At Pfizer, we remain committed and steadfast in our mission to deliver breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.
More than 1,600 colleagues support Pfizer across AfME today. For over 60 years, we have been working tirelessly, in partnership with healthcare professionals, communities, and governments, to change the lives of millions of people across 19 countries in AfME. We partner to increase access and affordability of Pfizer’s breakthroughs in core therapeutic areas across AfME, including vaccines, medicines for oncology, inflammation and immunology, internal medicine, rare diseases, and anti-infectives and sterile injectables used both in and outside of the hospital setting. We continue to be driven by science, discovering breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.
In 2020, we have managed to register 55 products and reach approximately 6.6 million patients in AfME countries.
Another area in which we are making a significant impact on patient lives is vaccinations. We supply Pfizer pneumococcal conjugate vaccine to 15 countries National Immunization Programs which helps vaccinating around four million newly born babies every year.
What is Pfizer’s vision for the future, and what is the key to a healthier future in your opinion?
At Pfizer we envision a future where disease doesn’t win, but science does, and that every patient, regardless of where they live, will have access to life-saving medicines, treatments, and vaccines. We focus on creative, innovative, and scalable solutions that address all unmet needs and critical public health challenges.
If COVID-19 taught us anything, it was that we could not solve healthcare challenges in silos. We must all – patients, industry bodies, governments, and industry players work together to achieve better health for all. Today, as we continue to collaborate with our partners, we focus on developing the necessary infrastructure to encourage industry-wide innovation and growth, including R&D capabilities, regulatory environments, and fostering local talent. Together these efforts are designed to help us deliver more breakthroughs locally to meet unmet patient needs. We can only achieve this by sharing and cooperating in expertise with industry stakeholders.
How do you evaluate the region that you are responsible of? Especially that this region is known for significant challenges in healthcare.
The healthcare sector across AfME is at a critical point today, rapidly growing to meet the population’s needs. Governments are making considerable investments in the industry as they seek to improve the health of their citizens and economies. There are, however, key challenges facing the regional industry. As we seek to deliver medical breakthroughs that change lives, two of our primary challenges are 1) the regulatory environment and 2) future talent.
In recent years at Pfizer, we have undergone significant evolution from a diversified company with a comprehensive portfolio of legacy brands to a science and innovation-focused biopharmaceutical powerhouse. As we focus on delivering medical breakthroughs in the region, one of our primary objectives is to support research and development. Creating an environment where R&D can flourish requires an ecosystem underlined by robust regulations that enable and encourage investment. That includes ensuring that sufficient protections are in place for all those involved in the development process. Intellectual Property (IP) protection, for example, is essential to guaranteeing investment into risky, costly, complex, and lengthy R&D. Without these protections, our efforts to meet unmet patient needs face serious challenges.
That brings me to the second challenge we face regionally, which is talent. Besides having the proper framework to facilitate medical breakthroughs, we need to ensure that we have the talent to drive innovation. Across AfME, we have many bright young minds ready to lead the industry, but we need to support them with our industry expertise to help them flourish. From encouraging STEM education at an early age to women in the industry and educating students on the opportunities available to them across the biopharma industry, we are keen to support the development of the industry’s future leaders.
In the case of both these challenges, we are collaborating with industry stakeholders, from government authorities to industry bodies, to advance the healthcare industry collectively for the benefit of patients. Today, for example, there is an incredible R&D project ongoing in Saudi Arabia, where multiple clinical trial protocols (phases 2 and 3) are under review. Several have already reached the final stages of development and approval in oncology, vaccine, public health, and gene therapy in Saudi Arabia. The trial of gene therapy in Duchenne’s disease at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, for example, is a crucial milestone for us regionally. These trials would not have been possible without the willingness of local research centers and authorities to work together.
As for helping to support talent, our flagship initiative in Algeria – B-Imitiyaz – thanks to the partnership between the Ministry of Education and several universities – is seeing current students learn about all the latest developments in our industry from world-leading experts. Initiatives such as these encourage our future generation of industry leaders and are possible only through collaboration.
There are lots of unmet patient needs worldwide and particularly in Africa and the Middle East region. How are you planning to meet the region’s needs, and what are the strategies you are using?
We remain focused on where and how we can make the most significant impact – providing novel, scalable and sustainable access solutions; bringing Pfizer breakthroughs to address the most pressing global health needs; and investing in people, markets, technology, and data to strengthen healthcare systems for the most vulnerable people.
To identify the gaps in the patient journey and address them, we partner with governments across AfME, global health organizations, and traditional and non-traditional players in the health space. By working closely with our local partners, we tailor our solutions to the specific needs of these patients: ranging from financing solutions to ancillary services such as doorstep deliveries supported by virtual healthcare.
Pfizer has made a substantial investment in the Biovac Consortium, a private-public partnership that provides significant workforce development training to healthcare professionals in South Africa to locally produce the company’s pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. Our company has invested $24.5 million to date in this partnership of which more than 50% dedicated for the Technology Transfer. Once Pfizer’s workforce development regiment and full technology transfer have been successfully completed, more than a million babies will be treated annually with our product through the government’s expanded program on immunization. Moreover, once the South African scientists’ training is complete, the expectation is that they will collaborate with Pfizer on future endeavors to provide localized insight into the most pressing healthcare challenges in the region. As a result of this activity, South Africa would most likely become the world’s first low-resource market to develop a vaccine against Group B Streptococcus (GBS) infection.
One of the greatest access barriers to Pfizer’s products across Sub-Saharan Africa is the “last mile” challenge, access to affordable healthcare into the hands of patients. This has been spotlighted across the world, although there is a priority to focus on this in relation to the African continent needs. Many urban and rural communities across the continent without reliable infrastructure cannot receive biological materials. To address this challenge, Pfizer is investing in two pioneering ventures. The first is a strategic funding collaboration with Zipline, a California-based company that assembles specialty drones in the United States and operates them in Africa to deliver our products. To-date, Zipline has made over 20,000 deliveries, impacting almost 11 million people in Rwanda and Ghana. The second project is with U.S.-based Not Impossible Labs, which is creating driverless, solar-powered boats to deliver products across remote Sub-Saharan Africa.
Trachoma is the world’s leading cause of infectious blindness. To heed the World Health Organization’s call to eliminate blinding trachoma, Pfizer has partnered with the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) to reduce the disease incidence across Africa. 27 Sub Saharan countries are included in this program and to date, Ethiopia which has the highest burden of trachoma as of 4th of January 2021 has received 455.7 million treatments of the Azithromycin donation which is 49.7% of the Global donation while Ghana had reached trachoma elimination by 2018. More recently in April 2021, Gambia was validated by the WHO for eliminating trachoma as a public health problem. Pfizer’s current commitment is to support the program till 2025.
How do you see the world today after the pandemic? Do you think we are now ready to face similar or maybe more dangerous pandemics in the future?
A global pandemic is a healthcare crisis, and, in many ways, we are never 100% fully prepared for a crisis of this scale and nature.
Nonetheless, we have learned a tremendous amount from the events of the last year to year and a half and demonstrated the industry’s resilience in overcoming challenges.
At Pfizer, we worked tirelessly to respond to patients’ most significant medical needs in a time of crisis and did what many thought impossible. What usually takes years in terms of development we achieved in record time with our Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 efforts. We also demonstrated our ability to work with our industry peers for the benefit of patients worldwide.
While the pandemic is still not behind us, our efforts are focused on continuing to roll out and ensure access to the vaccine for patients everywhere. What we have learned from these events, however, is that we must work together to solve healthcare crises – it is impossible to solve them otherwise. As for crisis preparedness, it is down to our work together with authorities to ensure that, faced with another pandemic, we have everything in place, from R&D to global supply chains, to ensure we are ready to deal with any future healthcare challenges. At the same time, we will continue to leverage technology to overcome patients’ challenges in accessing quality healthcare and life-saving medications. New technologies and service models are increasingly being used to deliver vital healthcare to the world’s most vulnerable communities.
What do you think is the role of communities and governments in the improvement of the lives of people and in protecting them from future health threats?
From patient communities to government authorities and industry bodies, each of us has a part to play in ensuring we have resilient healthcare systems that meet patients’ needs.
Pfizer continues to work across AfME to drive pro-patient innovation, policies, and reforms to strengthen health systems with the support of governments, NGOs, private sector partners, and industry associations.
Public-private partnerships are critical to our work at Pfizer, enabling many of our most exciting initiatives.
Pfizer AfME joined hands with Wellcome to launch the Surveillance Partnership to Improve Data for Action on Antimicrobial Resistance (SPIDAAR), a new multi-year, public-private research collaboration with the governments of Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda to track resistance patterns and better understand the burden of AMR on patients living in low- and middle-income countries.
What are you doing to drive greater access and provide affordable solutions across AfME?
Our Patient Access Programs help eligible patients who cannot afford the treatment cost of the Pfizer medicines prescribed by their physicians. With more than 30 programs in 11 countries across Africa and the Middle East, we provide affordability solutions and support the lives of over 4.500 patients suffering from various oncology, inflammatory and rare diseases.
Moreover, we are working in several countries on Managed Entry Agreements with particular focus on health outcome-based models in order to accelerate access to innovation.
In addition, we are working with PHRMAG in the region to support the efforts of the governments to develop policies aimed at creating headroom for innovative medicines by achieving greater efficiencies in spending on off-patent medicines and other health system policies related to pharmaceutical spending.