During a global virtual press briefing on 19 March 2020, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) gathered five global pharmaceutical leaders including Eli Lilly Chairman and CEO David A. Ricks, who is also the president of IFPMA for 2019-2020, to discuss the global ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis.
In my career, I have never seen the kind of collaboration across industry partners – but also with biotech, academia and governments – that I’m seeing today
David Ricks, Eli Lilly
Ricks echoed the words of IFPMA Executive Director Thomas Cueni in emphasizing, “we are living in unprecedented times. Just eight weeks ago we began to hear about a virus that has now essentially turned society upside down.”
Nevertheless, the 23-year Lilly veteran is quick to identify a silver lining: “In my career, I have never seen the kind of collaboration across industry partners – but also with biotech, academia and governments – that I’m seeing today. The timeline by which we’re moving is truly remarkable. We’re seeing regulators approve studies in just days. Things are moving fast and they need to because this is a dangerous threat that needs to be extinguished.”
On 22 March, in its home state of Indiana, United States, Lilly announced that the company would offer drive-through testing for COVID-19 for Indianapolis-area health care workers as a service to the community, and a week later, they extended this service to two additional groups of higher-risk individuals. So far, around 3,000 people have already been tested at the drive-through facility.
With the global pandemic wreaking havoc on many economies, questions about pricing and affordability were also raised during the press briefing. Ricks emphasizes the importance of prioritizing important R&D as the whole industry works on developing viable treatments and vaccines. “I have been spending the last four weeks of my life working on COVID-19 related issues, with partners who are on the phone here today as well as many others [including] government agencies, etc. I’ve yet to hear a single person ask the question: who will get credit or how will we get paid. That’s just not the issue we’re working on now. I’m sure it’ll work its way out, but our industry stands ready right now to solve the problem.”
On 25 March, a consortium of 15 life sciences companies – including Eli Lilly – announced a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate the development, manufacture and delivery of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19. This includes as a first step the sharing of their proprietary libraries of molecular compounds already evaluated as possessing some degree of safety and activity data so that they can be screened quickly for potential efficacy against COVID-19.
In addition, three weeks ago, Lilly announced a collaboration with Canadian biotech AbCellera to co-develop antibody products to prevent and treat COVID-19. After receiving a blood sample from one of the first recovered US COVID-19 patient, AbCellera was able to screen over five million immune cells and has identified over 500 unique fully human antibody sequences, which it calls the largest panel of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies ever reported.
During the IFPMA press briefing, Ricks underlined emphatically, “speaking broadly for diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, this is not a capital resource problem right now. There’s more of a human resource problem. We have ample financial resources, we know this is the moment this industry needs to rise to the occasion and marshal every bit of scientific knowledge and know-how we have to solve a humanitarian problem.”
For this reason, he continues, “executives in our industry are greenlighting and directing our scientific leaders to spend as much energy as possible addressing this global problem.” This includes pausing non-COVID-19-related clinical trials in order to free up medical resources, doctors and healthcare facilities for the fight against coronavirus, which Lilly was amongst one of the first Big Pharma players to do.
In response to a question from a Turkish reporter about the potential for technology transfer to countries with pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities, he adds, “I think it’s highly probable there is capacity globally for any solution and there may even be a capacity in one company depending on the potency of the medicines developed. So I think that’s a slightly different problem: we wouldn’t want to slow things down to transfer technology but rather just use what’s there. We’ll do what is practical to ensure patients globally can access a medicine as quickly as possible to end the crisis.”
With COVID-19 having dominated the conversation for the past few weeks, what the global industry is careful not to forget is the essential nature of the work they do on a daily business developing and supplying therapeutics and diagnostics to billions of people globally. For this reason, Ricks outlines, “we serve 40 million people globally with chronic disease. They’re at risk for COVID-19 and if their disease gets worse, they’ll have more risk, so we need to supply those medicines. That’s an essential activity.”
To communicate this message as widely as possible, on 30 March, Eli Lilly took out full-page advertisement placements in a multitude of newspapers across the United States (where the American company conducts over half of their business) with a letter from Ricks, declaring that “no one would go without their insulin, and we have meaningful solutions to help people get the medicine they need” and beseeching them to call the Lilly Diabetes Solution Center if patients using Lilly insulin have recently lost their job or health insurance as a result of COVID-19.