Last year, Pfizer raced to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, and these have been instrumental in saving many lives. Recently, the company also rolled out the vaccine for 12-to-15-year old's marking a significant step in the fight against the pandemic.
Omnia Health Magazine sat down with Patrick van der Loo, Pfizer's newly appointed Regional President for Africa and the Middle East (AfME) region, to discuss this recent announcement and the company's vaccine plans for the region.
Patrick's Pfizer experience spans more than 20 years in leadership roles with multiple successes across geographies. He will lead the commercial operations to bring scientific breakthroughs in vaccines, oncology, and rare diseases to serve patients better in his new role. He said: "We are in a great period of transformation in Africa and the Middle East, and so for me, it's a great honour to have been elected as the regional president for this region at this pivotal point in time." Excerpts:
Pfizer recently rolled out vaccines for children between the ages of 12 to 15. How safe is it?
Recently, an analysis of our phase three trial in this population was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In these situations, it is essential to balance efficacy, safety and tolerability. The findings demonstrated that the vaccine efficacy in this group was 100 per cent, with robust antibody responses in the age group of 12 to 15 years, and that's with or without prior evidence of infection. The trial was conducted in the U.S. with 2,260 adolescents participating. With regards to safety and tolerability, it had a very favourable profile. It's comparable to other adolescent vaccines, which are mainly transient, with mild to moderate reactogenicity, and there were no serious adverse events. The results have significant implications for vaccination of this age group because it will help prevent disease and community transmissions. It will also help protect the health of these young people and allow them to safely return to school and participate in extracurricular activities, which is especially important given the severe mental health impact of COVID-19 on this age group in particular.
What is Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine plan, specifically for Africa and the Middle East region?
The next steps are making sure that the COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available in low to middle-income countries. There are several plans to make sure that we are also represented in those countries appropriately. There is also a lot of trial work going on, including in the region, in other patient populations. For example, trials are going on in pregnant women, and as a result, also in newborns. Based on the outcome of the trials, we expect several countries to act very quickly in the region regarding approval in these patient populations. Another recent topic of discussion has been if booster doses are required, and how long will the vaccine remain effective for? We started vaccinating as early as December last year. So, there are multiple trials taking place regarding the necessity and efficacy of having this booster dose and will it be needed. It looks like it will be, which will lead to a lot of work that would need to be done with countries that we have agreements with already for the initial vaccination of their population.
Tell us about your move from Asia-Pacific to the AfME region?
AfME is a vibrant and diverse region spanning numerous geographies, nationalities, cultures, and languages. Yet, common to all countries in AfME is an underlying sense of dynamism characterised by developed and fast-developing economies. Against that backdrop, we have a fascinating and considerable opportunity to deliver breakthroughs that change patients' lives across the region. After working with Pfizer for more than 20 years in Europe, North America, and the Asia Pacific, I look forward to learning about the intricacies of the local markets here, getting to know my colleagues, and bringing my emerging markets experience and Pfizer best practices to the region. One of my first significant projects here involves the careful implementation and execution of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine delivery across several countries in partnership with numerous governments and ministry bodies. This project gives me great hope and is a tremendous and tangible example of meaningful ways to impact patients' lives.
What are some significant trends that will be driving the growth of the healthcare industry in this region?
When I started this role, I observed that the regional healthcare sector here is very dynamic. I think there's a critical period of growth ahead for both the industry and the countries that we operate in. The key to facilitating development is a robust regulatory framework that encourages innovation. The key to that framework is questions around intellectual property or IP protection, which has been an issue in this region in the past. A strong IP culture helps to promote medical progress in many ways. It provides incentives to sustain R&D across therapeutic areas. It encourages technology transfer and attracts capital, both local as well as foreign direct investment. Together these elements fuel innovation and economic growth while supporting the creation of medicines that save lives. Conversely, inadequate regulatory frameworks for intellectual property rights will fundamentally increase the length of time it takes to deliver treatments to patients, which you see in certain countries. Still, I'm very encouraged by what I see from a government perspective who want to make this work. Governments that are focused on creating these frameworks of quality, safety, efficacy while supporting the development of innovative pharmaceutical products will leverage growth the best. There is a lot of ambition in countries throughout the region, not just in the Gulf but also in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, these goals support the move towards knowledge-based economies rather than brick and mortar-based economies, which will help retain and develop the next generation of talent needed to power the future healthcare industry. Numerous other trends will help drive growth. This includes collaboration with the wider ecosystem to ensure better patient access, which is very important in Africa, Middle East, and from an industry and customer perspective, and openness to adapt to newer ways to engage with customers.
What is Pfizer doing to drive greater patient access across Africa and the Middle East?
We have several patient access programmes that help eligible patients who cannot afford their Pfizer medication. There are over 30 programmes in 11 countries across Africa and the Middle East to provide affordable solutions in this space. We support the lives of over 4,500 patients suffering from various oncology, inflammatory and rare diseases. But aside from these patient access programmes, there are also structural elements we work on. We work on those both as an individual company and an industry partner with several countries on managed entry agreements. These have a particular focus on health outcome-based models. This we do to accelerate access to innovation in these countries. And as an industry partner, we are supporting the efforts of the governments to develop policies that are aimed at creating headroom for innovative medicines. We are trying to achieve greater efficiencies and spending on off-patent medicines and other health system policies related to pharmaceutical spending.
What is Pfizer's vision for AfME and the company's 2021 regional growth plans?
At Pfizer, all our work is fundamentally underlined by our mission to deliver breakthroughs that change patients' lives.
That dictates all our work globally, including in Africa and the Middle East, where for the past 60 years, we have been working with healthcare professionals, communities, and governments to that end. We are proud to share that in 2020, we changed the lives of 6.6 million patients across the region.
Simultaneously, as a global company, Pfizer is shifting from a diversified company with a consumer health portfolio and comprehensive portfolio of legacy brands to a more science-focused biopharmaceutical powerhouse. As part of that transformation, one of our core priorities is promoting innovation in the region across our full range of therapeutic areas – oncology, vaccines, rare diseases, internal medicine, inflammation & immunology, and hospital products.
We are working closely with governments and other key stakeholders to support the development of necessary infrastructure to encourage industry-wide innovation and growth, including regional research and development capabilities and regulatory environments. Together these efforts are designed to help us deliver more breakthroughs locally. For example, our efforts over recent years with the passion of our teams and work with health authorities have helped speed up pharmaceutical product registrations, allowing us to bring therapies to market quicker for patients in need.
Patrick van der Loo
What are some of the significant milestones Pfizer has achieved for the AfME region?
As part of our regional efforts to deliver breakthroughs, there are currently multiple clinical trial protocols (phase 2 and 3) under review. Some of them have already reached the final stages of development and approval in oncology, vaccine, public health, and gene therapy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The trial of gene therapy in Duchenne's disease at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre is a key milestone. It shows the increased interest in working with key centres in the region.
In addition, we supplied Pfizer pneumococcal conjugate vaccine to 15 countries National Immunization Programmes, which help to vaccinate around four million newly born babies every year.
We have also made considerable progress in delivering medical breakthroughs across the region. In 2020, we registered 55 products, and this year we have registered 26 to date. Several of these are registered in countries with particularly challenging regulatory environments where these efforts historically would have taken much longer.
We have great many Pfizer milestones related to the successes of our team. Diversity and inclusion are critical values at Pfizer AfME, and we are mainly focused on reducing the gender gap. For example, in April 2021, 61 per cent of our new hires were female.
We are also proud to share that several Pfizer AfME offices have been recently recognised as top employers. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were certified as the 'Best Places to Work' in 2020/2021. In addition, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, and Nigeria have all been recognised by the Top Employers Institute for 2020/2021. Testament to our HR teams, policies, and overall corporate culture, one of our core focuses are developing talent from a global mindset and building enterprise leaders.
In 2019, we launched what we call LAFTA, a programme designed to provide knowledge, experience, and practical tools to accelerate the growth and development of aspiring female talent in AfME. It consists of activities such as leadership coaching, personal branding training, mentorship opportunities, and much more. As part of our broader efforts, we also actively encourage the exchange of talent and expertise across geographic regions. Recent events related to the COVID-19 pandemic and new work from home policies have also enabled us to look at new opportunities for developing talent more broadly across the regions.
We have made considerable progress in delivering medical breakthroughs across the region. In South Africa, for example, we accelerated the registration of our breast cancer therapy. What previously took over five years was completed in 14 months which is a significant breakthrough.
How important are Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) as a focus for Pfizer in the region?
Collaborations between public and private organisations are a powerful tool to support innovation, growth and development. Across AfME, much of our work involves partnering together with governments, sharing our expertise and insights to achieve our shared objective of supporting patients' wellbeing.
One of the most recent and successful outcomes of our long-held partnership with the Algerian authorities was the launch of B-Imtiyaz. As part of the programme, developed together with the Ministry of Education, selected students receive industry training from Pfizer and global industry experts to support their professional career development. By equipping students with the expert knowledge and tools needed to embark on a successful career in pharma and biotech, our goal is to support the next generation of Algerian scientists who will drive innovation across the sector.
With many markets in the region focused on shifting to knowledge-based economies, the work of private companies will continue to remain critical to governments. By bringing global best practices and expertise to the table while governments implement them according to local particularities, PPPs combine the best of both partners making for fruitful collaborations.
This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.