JPM: Novartis CMO Tsai on how the pandemic is changing the face of biopharma R&D, how pharma works

This time last year, the life science world descended into San Francisco for the 2020 J. P. Morgan healthcare conference, doing the normal things like blowing a whole year’s budget in one day for a hotel room, shaking hands, doing deals and, if you’re like us, asking questions.

In the background, and it seemed at the time quite far in the background, was a strange new respiratory disease coming out of an area in China that looked alarming but appeared to be under control.

We fast-forward a year, and the budgets are safe, because for JPM 2021, we’re all on Eastern time, at our desks—some even in pajamas—listening virtually to what biopharma plans for the year as we continue to stay away from crowds, because that viral outbreak went from a market stall to a global pandemic in mere weeks.

That changed almost everything for almost everyone, and while some nations across Asia and Australasia have managed to tamper down the outbreak, in the West, we’re still in the thick of it, being hit by second and third waves as we desperately now start to try the mammoth task of inoculating billions of people.

Biopharma has been at the forefront of dealing with this pandemic: The drugs and vaccines created in record time will likely be the main components to bring societies out of lockdown and reset faltering economies.

It has, however, hit pharma companies hard as well: Clinical trials outside of COVID-19 have been hit by delays and stoppages because of lockdowns and concerns over viral spread.

But speaking to Novartis’ Chief Medical Officer John Tsai, M.D., at JPM this week, the challenges brought by the pandemic have been superseded by how the industry has learned to not only adapt but also excel and accelerate its research.

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Tsai, formerly CMO at Amgen before being poached by Novartis in 2018, said, on an internal basis at Novartis, “When that switch flipped in March [during the first wave of the pandemic] we found that it actually unlocked a lot of innovation and it was in fact driving a lot of motivation because people had the flexibility and the freedom to work form anywhere they wanted.”

In terms of collaborations, which you would assume would be harder over the phone and via Zoom meetings, Tsai said those increased massively after March. “Even when look at our COVID trials, we started three. Typically from concept to getting a trial up and running, that usually takes us nine to 12 months. But we looked at three studies: one for hydroxychloroquine, one for [Jakavi] ruxolitinib and one for [Ilaris] canakinumab.

“We got those up in four to six weeks. So collaboration on trials like these is sky-high, and we have learned to use digital methodologies for recruitment purposes and conducted 35,000 remote monitoring visits.” These are elements to its business that Novartis will now “carry forward,” Tsai says.

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What Novartis has learned during 2020 will also “accelerate how we do R&D” in the future, he adds. These days, Tsai said, he can call up pretty much all of the heads of R&D across the industry and talk about the agenda of what needs to be done as well as tap them for collabs.

If, and maybe when, there is a SARS-CoV-03, the industry will be ready because of this. Tsai also hopes that the efforts of pharma in 2020 and 2021 will be remembered. “We’re often thought about in terms of reputation for drug pricing and access,” he says, “but when pandemics hit, you turn to the life science industry for solutions because it is the science that will win through.”