Can the pandemic-induced collaboration among health care companies have a real impact on inequality?

Science-based efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 prompted partnerships within the health care, biotech, and pharmaceutical industries, rapid implementation of advanced technology, and the creation of groundbreaking vaccines.

“There’s so much collaboration, cooperation going on,” Daniel O’Day, chairman and CEO of Gilead Sciences, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health virtual conference on Wednesday. “The only competition in COVID is the virus itself. Companies have come together and collaborated in ways that we’ve never seen before. I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue to do that.”

At Brainstorm Health, CEOs leading health care and pharmaceutical companies discussed how they plan to harness the ingenuity of the past year to address existing health inequities amplified by the pandemic.

You realize that speed is of the essence

A report released on April 28 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among fully vaccinated adults age 65 and older the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were 94% effective against COVID-19 hospitalization.

These vaccines harness a new technology that has been wildly successful.

“When I asked them, ‘What are we going to do for a vaccine?’ they said, ‘We’re going to work on an mRNA,’” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. “I said, ‘You realize if we are successful, that will be the first-ever vaccine or the first-ever medicine approved with mRNA technology.’”

The scientists had been working with mRNA for about two years and explained to him that the technology enables one to accomplish what typically takes months in just weeks. Bourla agreed with the scientists’ decision, but, under time constraints, knew that meant creating partnerships.

“You realize that speed is of the essence. If we do that, we have to go with a partner,’’ Bourla said. Pfizer obtained the help of a “good partner” in BioNTech, which they have known for two years, he said.

This year, Pfizer will exceed 2.5 billion doses produced globally, Bourla said.

But the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at –70°C, requiring specialized freezers that are expensive. Many rural hospitals in the U.S. can’t afford these storage units. Bourla said the company will reveal plans later this year to make the vaccine “way more distribution friendly.”

‘We couldn’t afford to miss a beat

“Today, one out of two [COVID] patients in the hospital are receiving remdesivir,” said Gilead’s O’Day.

Gilead Sciences has been a longtime producer in the world of antivirals and worked on remdesivir for more than a decade before positioning it to fight COVID. But even as Gilead scientists continued to work on remdesivir, they simultaneously focused on developing cancer medicines and combating HIV, said O’Day.

“As the world’s leading company that supports patients who have HIV, three out of four patients around the world are on Gilead medicine,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to miss a beat there.”

O’Day continued, “HIV, sadly, disproportionately affects marginalized communities. We do a lot with partners to make sure that those populations can have better access to health care, better access to prevention.”

Gilead plans to “double down” on its commitment, said O’Day. “We think about the disparities in health care that exist today in our country and the racial inequities that are going on, and it’s absolutely essential we double down in our programs.”

‘Upstream is our lane

“We’ve learned how quickly advances in science can be incorporated into clinical practice,” said Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, a nonprofit health system based in Salt Lake City.

Although, “historically, health systems have been islands,” the pandemic has created a focus on collaboration, said Harrison. To that end, he keeps Greg Adams, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, “on speed dial.” The CEOs share best practices in addressing health care disparities, which includes addressing underlying systemic issues of race, education, and income, said Adams, who leads the Oakland-based system of health care providers and nonprofit health plans.

“Upstream is our lane,” Adams said. “We’re focused on prevention. We’re focused on keeping our communities healthy. We understand that lack of education, lack of employment, housing—all of it contributes to health; and it contributes to the excess medical costs that we have in this country.”

Adams continued, “We are looking at how we will provide virtual urgent care on demand across the country, with the goal of having that in place within Kaiser Permanente regions by September, and then moving across the country.”

Adams and Harrison agree that democratizing health data can bring equality to medicine.  

“We’re collecting data in every one of our clinical programs to understand areas where we are falling short for our neighbors,” said Harrison. Intermountain has partnered with “a number of other systems” to address the health care data issue with an upcoming venture, he said. “It will be an opportunity to have standardized approaches to how data is organized, so that patients can actually benefit from a free flow of information.”

‘Everything starts in the community

Over the past year, CVS Health has been on the “front lines helping Americans prevail against the pandemic,” said Karen S. Lynch, president and CEO of the retail giant.

“We’re the largest health care provider that’s given over 15 million tests,” said Lynch. The company has also administered more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, she noted.

“What we learned with a pandemic is everything starts in the community,” Lynch explained. “We saw that with testing. We saw that with vaccines. I think we’ll continue to see more and more people focused on access to health care, locally. And I’ve always said health care is local, and that’s where it all starts.”

Going forward, the company will also focus on the social determinants of health, including housing, she said. In 2020, CVS Health invested more than $114 million in affordable housing to support the construction and rehabilitation of more than 2,800 affordable housing units in 30 cities across 12 states.

“No one worries about their health if they don’t have housing, they don’t have access to healthy foods, and they don’t have a job,” Lynch said.

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