Sanofi CEO: How we can prevent being caught off guard by a pandemic like the coronavirus ever again

April 23, 2020, 12:30 AM UTC

As a global society, we struggled to get ahead of the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. In the few months since the first case was reported, it’s become clear that there are three major challenges we must solve in order to save thousands of lives: developing and rapidly scaling vaccines, finding effective treatments for both the moderately and seriously ill, and flattening the curve.

While we’re tackling these urgent challenges, we also can’t afford not to think long term. In all likelihood, we’ll see a wave of the virus return this fall, and we certainly cannot dismiss the possibility of a new pandemic emerging at any time. What can be done today to ensure that we’re never again caught off guard?

It’s a daunting task, but we should be inspired by the current moment of shared purpose that stemmed from this pandemic. We don’t yet have a vaccine, but many organizations are on the hunt. 

There are currently around 75 vaccines under investigation. At Sanofi we’re exploring multiple technologies—including traditional recombinant DNA and newer approaches such as mRNA—to try to find one. China’s Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and Sinovac have both been approved to test on humans inactivated vaccines that could potentially trigger an immune response. And Oxford University will begin human trials for its own vaccine later this week.

Having many shots on goal increases the likelihood not only of finding a vaccine quickly, but also the chances of having more than one vaccine on the market. This is critical, as we’ll likely need billions of doses to make a difference. If manufacturing at this scale is a roadblock, manufacturers will need to partner with governments and even competitors to achieve the volumes necessary.

There are also myriad companies testing various potential treatment approaches, from antiviral medications to immunosuppressants to anti-inflammatory drugs. Combined with parallel efforts to explore antibody-based treatments and diagnostics, no stone will be left unturned.  

But even as hotspot cities begin to show glimmers of hope for flattening curves, now is not the moment to take our foot off the pedal. Rather, we must begin to solidify the important measures we’ve already begun to implement, shifting from crisis mode to a more constant state of global preparedness.

We can start by making sure we maintain our shared energy and urgency. Typically, a vaccine can take up to 10 years to develop. We’re on track to do it in about 18 months, with one approach building on an advanced preclinical SARS vaccine candidate that could protect against COVID-19.

That’s an incredible acceleration. We can all continue that momentum if we lay the groundwork for better coordination between pharma companies, academia, and the regulatory bodies that oversee clinical trials and drug approvals.

When we combine the scientific expertise and manufacturing capabilities of private companies with the resources of public agencies, we create solutions that will help bring lifesaving drugs to patients much more quickly. With COVID-19, we’re already seeing the creation of flexible but safe clinical trial guidelines. Add academia into the equation, and we’ll drastically increase the size of our databases and maximize research capabilities.

As we maintain this breakthrough-breeding energy and collaboration, we must simultaneously look for ways to revive the economy and safeguard it from such severe dips in the future. Countrywide shutdowns have had a serious impact on the global workforce. Indeed, the International Labour Organization predicts that an astounding 195 million jobs could be lost in the second quarter of this year alone. 

But we can’t just open the floodgates and tell people to get back on the job. In fact, 80% of economists believe that stopping strict lockdowns too early will result in greater economic damage, according to a survey by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s Initiative on Global Markets. 

To get people back to work quickly without harpooning containment progress, we need technology that expands diagnostic capabilities. Antibody testing will be critical, for example, in helping us see who already fought off the virus and is able to safely return to work.

Pharma companies, governments, and others must also work with the technology sector to track the virus’s spread. Consider how powerful smartphone apps can be, for instance, in tracking and even diagnosing the virus. At Sanofi, we’re collaborating with a healthtech startup called Luminostics to build a self-testing app. Apple and Google are working together to establish a voluntary contact tracing network using short-range Bluetooth communications. Those who download the app will be alerted if they were in close contact with someone who has fallen ill with COVID-19.

Data from cell phones is already helping to track and inform people of possible exposure in Israel, South Korea, and Taiwan. Privacy is of course a concern, but tech companies, academics, and government entities can work together to devise a system that doesn’t compromise privacy. Health care and technology were already converging; now we need to accelerate and fully leverage technology tools.

Finally, COVID-19 has made us acutely aware that viruses know no borders. This global battle will require global solutions. We must push past the tensions already emerging between countries and continue to strengthen our global coordination on virus-related science, tracking, and predictive modeling. We also need to improve regional planning to make sure everyone has a sufficient amount of supplies, vaccines, and treatments.

In the U.S., the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) exists to coordinate stockpiling and planning situations like this, as well as managing vaccine manufacturing and the distribution of medical equipment. Currently, Europe has no BARDA equivalent, meaning that the EU has limited vaccine manufacturing capabilities and countries are independently responsible for stockpiling medical supplies and medications. This leads to competition for scarce resources. We can do better; I’ve called for the creation of a European BARDA equivalent to help us build regional capacities.

It is possible that as the weather warms, the virus could potentially enter a “cease-fire” phase. But we must take advantage of the months ahead and not fall into complacency. We cannot return to any semblance of normalcy until we have a vaccine. Let’s maintain this powerful energy, double down on collaboration, and approach pandemic response and preparedness with a global mindset and a commitment to information sharing. 

The scale of lives at risk is daunting. Because so much depends on us, we cannot fail in this endeavor.

Paul Hudson is CEO of Sanofi.

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