Pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a way to prevent and treat Covid-19. They're forming new partnerships to accelerate R&D, leveraging new data to better understand the virus and its progression, and shifting priorities to hopefully bring a halt to the global pandemic.
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Johnson & Johnson is one key player in the race to develop a vaccine. They've recently announced a lead vaccine candidate for Covid-19, and a landmark partnership between the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson and the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), who together have committed more than $1 billion of investment to co-fund vaccine research, development, and clinical testing for the new coronavirus. Johnson & Johnson's CEO, Alex Gorsky, has said the vaccine could be ready for human testing by this September, and their goal is to have 1 billion doses of the vaccine available globally on a not-for-profit basis for emergency global pandemic use.
To hear firsthand about their work developing a vaccine, Advisory Board's Brandi Greenberg and Pam Divack spoke with Seema Kumar, Vice President of Innovation, Global Health, and Policy Communication at Johnson & Johnson. Kumar highlighted three key forces driving Johnson & Johnson's progress and explained how the company is educating the general public about its work and offering hope that a vaccine may be in sight.
Vaccine development for novel viruses is not new to Johnson & Johnson. In fact, the company has already developed investigational novel vaccine candidates for Zika, Ebola, and HIV. Kumar noted that their ability to draw from previous experience has enabled them to accelerate their R&D processes during these times of urgency.
However, while Johnson & Johnson’s R&D process has not fundamentally changed, the virus itself presents a new set of challenges: notably, the lack of foundational knowledge about the novel virus itself. When researchers were developing a treatment or vaccine for Ebola, they already understood the disease and its pathology—but that information doesn't yet exist for Covid-19. As Kumar noted, "What is different about Covid-19 is that we are starting from scratch. No one knows much about this virus; it is novel and came out of nowhere. So when we first got the sequence, we [got right to work]."
To accelerate the development timeline under today's urgent circumstances, Johnson & Johnson is simultaneously conducting R&D while scaling up its manufacturing capabilities. This way, if the vaccine candidate is successful, the company can immediately start production. This timeline is exponentially faster than the 5-7 years it typically takes to develop a vaccine. As Kumar noted, "In the past we've worked at breakneck speed during the Ebola crisis; but now we are working at lightning speed."
Cross-industry collaboration is not new for a public health emergency, but it's a key component of how Johnson & Johnson is able to accelerate their development timelines. In addition to key players in the United States, such as the FDA and NIH, Johnson & Johnson is working with global leaders at the European Commission, The Gates Foundation, and other international actors. As Kumar noted, "This cross-industry collaboration isn't unprecedented. We've done it before [during vaccine R&D for HIV and Ebola], but this is probably orders of magnitude higher…. the virus doesn't respect borders or boundaries, [so] we need to work globally." Notably, this collaboration is helping Johnson & Johnson accelerate toward its goal of starting human clinical trials in September.
What's more, this high-impact, industry-wide collaboration created by Covid-19 may be here to stay—even after the pandemic settles down. Kumar said that "if nothing else, Covid-19 has taught us that we are all in this together. We are learning that no organization can do it alone. We've always collaborated, but now this notion of collaboration has become even keener."
With so much information (and misinformation) online about the new coronavirus and potential treatments and vaccines, separating fact from fiction can be confusing—especially for complex topics like vaccine development. As a result, Kumar emphasized the importance of public engagement in science during times of pandemic, and how essential it is that the general public understands what makes vaccine development different today.
"A lot of times, people don't pay attention [to science], but when you have things like Covid-19, it's a teachable moment for people. … We learn that we have to pay attention to science and public health," she said.
One way that Johnson & Johnson is educating the broader public about vaccine development is through a new live broadcast on LinkedIn called "The Road to a Vaccine." But the series isn't just about vaccine R&D—it covers a wide range of topics such as: how vaccines create immunity in humans; how antibody tests work; and how vaccines are actually manufactured. In addition, it addresses broad topics of public health, courage of everyday heroes and the importance of frontline health care workers.
"We really need to bring people along on the journey. We want to be transparent, bring people behind the scenes, and de-mystify what it takes to make a vaccine… [to combat] all the misconceptions," Kumar said.
If there's one thing that Kumar emphasized, it is this: have hope. "Our biggest message is that we want to bring hope. Hope that science and technology, with the right type of collaboration, and putting our best hearts and minds to work, can bring innovations… we are hopeful that we can enable a supply of 1 billion doses for the world, on a nonprofit basis for emergency global pandemic use…. there is hope at the end of the journey."
This hope will drive the industry's fight against Covid-19 moving forward. For more information on how health care leaders are fighting Covid-19, check out Advisory Board’s resources on coronavirus readiness.
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