Emma Walmsley

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Walmsley was three years into her effort remaking the U.K. pharma giant when COVID-19 struck and scrambled the world’s priorities. As one of the world’s leading producers of vaccines and respiratory drugs, GSK found itself on the front lines of a pandemic, and the company has leaned into that role—making available its adjuvant technology to help in others’ vaccine development efforts; scaling up production of critical medicines like inhalers and pain relievers; and collaborating to identify effective therapeutics. The COVID-19 vaccine the company is developing with its French competitor Sanofi—and which is among those supported by the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed—entered clinical trials in September. Both GSK and Sanofi signed on to the industry pledge to manufacture and distribute a vaccine according to scientific and ethical standards, and Walmsley, who was recently awarded the title of Dame by Queen Elizabeth II, has argued the pandemic offers the industry an opportunity to better its badly tarnished reputation.

All the while, GSK’s business has plugged along. Sales and profits were up 4.8% and 22%, respectively, in 2019. Revenue increased 8% in the first half of 2020—powered by the growth of its consumer health division, largely owing to its merger with Pfizer’s business. While GSK’s vaccine and pharma divisions were dented by COVID-19 and disrupted medical care, sales of respiratory and cancer drugs are up for the year. The company has also launched three medicines in 2020, including a new drug for multiple myeloma.

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