Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

Will the pharmaceutical industry keep collaborating after COVID-19? Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb CEOs say it has to

July 7, 2020, 8:06 PM UTC

The huge societal cost of every wasted moment in the quest to find treatments for COVID-19 has unleashed an unprecedented wave of data sharing and other collaboration between pharmaceutical companies. According to the CEOs of two of the world’s largest drug developers, that openness has huge potential benefits in the quest to treat other serious ailments, and they want to see it continue.

“I have never seen the level of collaboration that’s going on today,” said Giovanni Caforio, CEO of Bristol Myers Squibb, Tuesday at Fortune’s virtual Brainstorm Health conference.

“Think about the fact that when experts talk about a vaccine or an antiviral, we’ve always thought about five or 10 years,” Caforio continued. “Now we’re talking about a year or two.

“So how do we take what we’ve learned in the last six months and apply it to cancer?”

More open data-sharing among various private and public researchers has been a key element of that recently increased collaboration. Bristol Myers, Novartis, and others have shared their libraries of pharmaceutical compounds, or drug formulas, that might help treat the symptoms of the coronavirus. Many of those compounds have already undergone some degree of safety testing, and a COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator established by the Gates Foundation and others has been screening them for potential effectiveness. Regular meetings between the R&D chiefs of nearly a dozen pharmaceutical companies are also among other examples of high levels of collaboration.

But such actions alone aren’t enough, according to Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan.

“In the clinic, as you know, we have tremendous fragmentation of data systems, which makes it hard to gather information in real time in credible ways,” he told Brainstorm Health viewers. “Hopefully this [crisis] will also lead to the next step in ensuring that we have very high-quality data that can be linked together rapidly.”

That could help prevent duplication in research efforts, which Narasimhan admits, has been an issue in the fight against COVID-19. “At this moment of crisis, you have thousands of investigators starting their own [research] protocols…Ideally it would be more organized, but also more ideas come out of the chaos of innovation.”

The focus on collaboration and data also informs internal shifts that will survive the crisis. According to Narasimhan, Novartis is embracing distributed work after good results with having much of its workforce at home during the pandemic. It is also crowdsourcing and compiling insights gained during the pandemic from throughout the organization.

Narasimhan and Caforio also cited important lessons for how the world can be better prepared for the next pandemic, when—not if—it comes.

“We need a global surveillance system of the zoonotic hotspots where we know viruses can jump into [humans],” said Narasimhan, referring to places where animals and humans mix closely. Narasimhan also called for greater investment in so-called warm vaccine manufacturing capacity: standby facilities ready to jump into action as soon as a pandemic strikes, and which often require government support.

For Caforio, another major lesson was that pharma needs to be more directly engaged with patients, such as through a grant the company’s foundation made to an emergency food assistance program for immunocompromised patients.

While they have pulled together for a nearly unprecedented global emergency, drugmakers are ultimately competitors, and much remains unclear about how they might maintain their openness under less dire conditions. But Caforio is committed to tackling the challenge.

“We’ve created a virtual table of collaboration that has allowed us to challenge the status quo,” said the Bristol Myers Squibb CEO. “It is our job to make sure we don’t go back to our silos, and keep the same spirit as we think about other health [problems].”