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Astrazeneca: Our Vaccine Helped Save More Than One Million Lives

Astrazeneca: Our Vaccine Helped Save More Than One Million Lives

Mene Pangalos told Asharq Al-Awsat of aim to eliminate cancer as a cause of death
Thursday, 17 March, 2022 - 08:15
Mene Pangalos Executive Vice-President, BioPharmaceuticals R&D.

In the global fight against "Covid-19”, AstraZeneca has become a household name for millions of people around the world. It has supplied over 2.7 billion doses of the vaccine globally, with approximately two-thirds going to low- and middle-income countries, according to Mene Pangalos Executive Vice-President, BioPharmaceuticals R&D.

In a wide-ranging interview, Pangalos told Asharq Al-Awsat the vaccine has helped prevent 50 million Covid-19 cases, five million hospitalizations, and saved more than one million lives.

Pangalos also spoke of the company’s ambitious efforts to eliminate cancer as a cause of death. “We're leading a revolution to redefine cancer care”, he says, adding: “Through our Oncology R&D, we are pushing the boundaries of science to change the practice of medicine and transform the lives of patients living with cancer, with the aim of eliminating cancer as a cause of death”.

AstraZeneca has been a pioneer in the fight against Covid, particularly through the vaccine it developed with incredible speed with Oxford University. Tell us about that process.

Recognizing the urgent need for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, in April 2020 we forged a landmark partnership with the University of Oxford which brought together their world-class expertise in vaccinology and our global development and manufacturing capabilities. Together we committed to providing the vaccine broadly and equitably across the globe, at no profit during the pandemic.

AstraZeneca has now supplied over 2.7 billion doses of the vaccine globally, with approximately two thirds going to low- and middle-income countries and over 420 million doses supplied through our partnership with the COVAX initiative.

To date over 65 million doses of the AstraZeneca Vaccine have been supplied to Arab countries.

Unlike other pharmaceutical companies, AstraZeneca did not make profits out of the sale of its vaccine. What was behind this decision, and when do you plan on raising your prices?

We are proud to have put broad and equitable access at the heart of our pandemic response. AstraZeneca and its partners have released for supply more than 2.7 billion vaccine doses to more than 180 countries across every continent, approximately two-thirds of these doses have gone to low- and lower-middle-income countries.

The vaccine has helped prevent 50 million COVID-19 cases, five million hospitalizations, and saved more than one million lives.

In 2022, we have moved to an affordable pricing approach around the world that enables us to maintain broad global access to the vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic. This approach includes a tiered pricing approach aligned to Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, which is a widely recognized and implemented model used by developers of medicines and vaccines. We remain committed to supplying the vaccine at no profit to low-income countries.

Your ambitious R&D program states that “cures for cancer are within your grasp”. Tell us more about that.

At AstraZeneca, we are always striving, searching for new knowledge and the next breakthrough as we aim to have the greatest and swiftest impact on disease. Our pioneering R&D is focused on preventing, modifying and potentially curing disease, to deliver innovative, life-changing medicines for patients. Our R&D approach is evolving from pure symptom control to disease modification, focusing on earlier and smarter interventions that defy the natural course of disease. By reaching more patients earlier, we aim to slow disease progression and drive remission.

Our ambition in oncology is to provide cures for cancer in every form. We're not going to settle for standard of care or incremental improvements. We're leading a revolution to redefine cancer care. Through our Oncology R&D, we are pushing the boundaries of science to change the practice of medicine and transform the lives of patients living with cancer, with the aim of eliminating cancer as a cause of death. Our approach is to identify and treat patients earlier in the progress of their disease when there is potential for cure, and to improve the treatment of relapsed or refractory patients by addressing emerging resistant populations, particularly in later stages of the disease.

Our drug discovery and development is guided by our R&D Framework, which champions quality over quantity, and has helped transform the culture of medicine discovery and our business.

When it comes to cancer, we have one of the broadest and deepest oncology pipelines in the industry, based on six scientific platforms: Immuno-Oncology, DNA Damage Response, Antibody Drug Conjugates, Tumor Drivers and Resistance Mechanisms, Cell Therapies, and Epigenetics. With a focus on monotherapy and combinations, biomarker-driven innovative clinical trials and digital technologies, we are confident that cures for cancer are within our grasp.

But alongside our Oncology R&D organization we also have BioPharmaceuticals R&D, which is focused on Cardiovascular, Renal & Metabolism (CVRM), Respiratory & Immunology, and opportunistically, Neuroscience and Microbial Science.

The two organizations work together, sharing functions specializing in key scientific capabilities from medicinal chemistry to biometrics, patient safety to data science and artificial intelligence (AI), and clinical innovation to device technology. Collectively these enable us to accelerate our efforts to bring new medicines to patients.

How does your R&D program compare with that of other major pharmaceutical companies? And how do you plan on strengthening it across the globe?

In 2021 AstraZeneca invested $8 billion in R&D, around 21% of the Company’s turnover, in order to continue to discover and develop medicines which transform the lives of patients.

The Company has three world class strategic R&D centers including The Discovery Centre (DISC) in Cambridge in the UK, one in Gaithersburg, Maryland in the greater Washington, D.C. region of the US, and another in Gothenburg in Sweden, as well as further hubs across the world.

It has integrated R&D teams and accelerated decision-making processes, using its unique scientific capabilities, to deliver one of the most productive pipelines in the industry.

Since 2005, AstraZeneca has achieved an almost six-fold improvement in the proportion of its pipeline molecules that have advanced from preclinical investigation to completion of Phase III clinical trials – from 4% to 23%.

This improvement moves AstraZeneca well above the current industry average success rate of 14% in the 2018-2020 timeframe.

This is achieved through the combined efforts of 13,000 people at AstraZeneca who work exclusively in R&D, out of the Company’s 80,000 employees globally.

In 2021, AstraZeneca’s scientists published a total of 871 manuscripts, with 196 in high impact peer-review journals, compared to just one in 2010.

Tell us about the R&D Postdoctoral Challenge that you are launching. What are its main aims? And why have you chosen to announce it from Dubai?

The events of the past two years clearly show the need to push the boundaries of medical science has never been more urgent.

Rapid progress in disease understanding, as well as scientific and technological advances are genuinely changing our expectations of what is possible.

We are delighted to launch the R&D Postdoctoral Challenge to support the next generation of science leaders and help them translate their ideas into meaningful benefits for patients.

We chose to launch the post-doctoral challenge from the global platform of the World Expo 2020 in Dubai to underscore the truly global scope of this challenge.

We believe that geographic location should not pose a barrier to scientific exploration and are seeking proposals from outstanding candidates based anywhere around the world.

We are committed to attracting and retaining new talent, developing differentiated capabilities and skills, and creating new ways of working.

AstraZeneca holds an R&D presence in more than 40 countries across the globe, including strategic research centers in the UK, Sweden and the US, and development facilities in China and Japan.

The R&D Postdoctoral Challenge aims to discover transformative breakthroughs that hold a key to preventing, modifying, and hopefully in the future curing some of the world’s

most complex diseases. We’re inviting final year MD and/or Ph.D. students and Postdoctoral researchers to propose their innovative ideas that could help transform the treatment of some of the world’s most complex diseases.

Shortlisted applicants will have the opportunity to pitch their research proposals to a world-leading judging panel consisting of AstraZeneca and external life science leaders, with the potential to be awarded a fully funded postdoctoral position at AstraZeneca.

The judging panel will critique the proposals based on scientific merit, and opportunity to create real impact for patients, society and healthcare systems.

Successful candidates will join our vibrant scientific community within AstraZeneca, with access to the expertise, compounds, novel tools and technologies, and mentoring support they need to turn their ideas into reality.

Assigned both an academic and AstraZeneca mentor, successful candidates will have the freedom and autonomy to contribute known skills, plus the support to rapidly learn new approaches to follow the science, innovate and make an impact.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to highlight our Early talent programs.

We have a portfolio of high-quality early career programs supporting a diverse range of scientific talent at all stages of their professional development. Every year, we support more than 500 young scientists – including apprentices, undergraduate and graduate placements, PhDs and postdoctoral scientists.

· STEM Learning: Over 500 of our employees currently work as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) volunteers to inspire the next generation of scientist leaders and promote an understanding of the value and importance of global R&D towards creating a better, more sustainable society.

· School leavers: We are committed to supporting talent at the start of their careers, offering apprenticeships to gain practical experience of working in industry, plus outreach to schools to elevate awareness of roles in science.

· Graduates: Opportunities are provided to complete three different placements in two years across R&D, focusing on delivering breadth and depth of experience, career counselling and guidance.

· Postdoctoral research positions: Our two to three-year program funds postdoctoral projects to address fundamental scientific challenges that underpin drug discovery and development.

· Based on 2020 figures, across AstraZeneca there were >140 postdoctoral appointments of which >50% from world’s top 100 universities.

· Following the program, >95% of the postdoctoral alumni remained in science/technology and their scientific disciplines.

Does AstraZeneca have projects in the Arab world? Are you collaborating with particular universities, governments, companies? And on what projects?

AstraZeneca has a strong presence in and enduring commitment to the Arab world. We have continued to increase our footprint significantly through local partnerships and investments, as well as emphasizing our patient-centric approach in the form of local clinical trials and R&D.

Working hand-in-hand to tackle challenges within the healthcare sector by contributing to a robust healthcare ecosystem, our priorities are aligned with national health agendas.

We work closely with government officials, ministries and other healthcare bodies to ensure uninterrupted access to innovative medication for patients.

Our ambition is to reimagine healthcare – harnessing innovation to transform patients’ healthcare journeys to improve earlier diagnosis, more precision treatments and proactive digital monitoring for better outcomes, powered by digital, data and technology.

Our priorities remain to ensure the continued supply of our medicines to patients, and to safeguard the health and wellbeing of all, leaving no one behind.

Over 65 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine have been supplied to Arab countries through our partners.

UAE was the first country in the world to receive doses of our long-acting antibody combination, Evusheld, which offers pre-exposure protection from COVID-19. Egypt is also one of the earliest recipients of Evusheld doses.

How are you strengthening and supporting R&D across the world?

The A.Catalyst Network is an interconnected and dynamic global network of more than 20 AstraZeneca health innovation hubs, made up of physical locations and virtual partnerships. It connects a range of stakeholders, including governments, start-up companies and technology partners, to work inclusively and collaboratively to accelerate innovation, increase healthcare access and improve outcomes for patients and society. Each A.Catalyst Network hub has its own unique ecosystem, addresses different challenges, and can take different forms, depending on its local characteristics and needs.

We launched a hub in the GCC following the signing of an MoU with UK-based innovation partners, Gendius, in 2020. The A.Catalyst Network GCC hub provides access to a wealth of resources and information from partners around the globe. The HealthGATE application (a digital service designed to support the education, diagnosis and treatment of patients) and the expansion of EduGATE (a digital community of local HCPs with access to innovative tools and enhanced learning), enhance integration within this comprehensive biomedical ecosystem, furthering local medical capabilities, improving the abilities of healthcare practitioners and the lives of patients.

We currently have >2,000 active collaborations to accelerate drug discovery globally with academia, biotech companies, industry peers, healthcare systems and governments: 1,200 in Europe, 600 in the US and 130 in the Asia Pacific region.

Our Open Innovation programme offers a permeable research environment where scientists both inside and outside of AstraZeneca can share their ideas and collaborate on projects. Since its launch in 2014, we have reviewed more than 1000 proposals from scientists in 40 countries across six continents, and collaborators have been awarded US$75 million in grant funding to support their research projects using AstraZeneca assets. The Open Innovation portfolio currently features 35 ongoing or planned clinical trials and more than 425 pre-clinical studies.

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