WHO tasks ex-GSK CEO Witty with hastening COVID-19 vaccine R&D

Andrew Witty interviewed during Forbes Healthcare Summit conference
Andrew Witty (Forbes/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has tasked ex-GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty with helping accelerate development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Witty is taking a leave of absence from his job at UnitedHealth Group until around the end of the year to co-lead the WHO initiative.

With a return to normality on hold until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, the WHO is putting together a team to try to cut the time it takes to get a prophylactic shot to market. Full details of the WHO team are yet to emerge, but UnitedHealth disclosed Witty’s role in a statement to announce his upcoming absence from the company, where he works as president and CEO of the Optum unit.

In selecting Witty to co-lead the group, the WHO has positioned itself to tap into the experience of a leader who was at the forefront of efforts to protect people against swine flu in 2009. At the time, Witty said GSK had been preparing for a pandemic for several years. Those preparations enabled GSK to win approval for a H1N1 vaccine three months after the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic. Within six months, GSK had provided 11 million doses to the U.K.

Developing a COVID-19 vaccine poses a different challenge, not least because unlike GSK in 2009, no company had a ready-made mock up, but Witty nonetheless has more direct experience of rising to the task of creating a prophylactic in a pandemic than most people do. 

UnitedHealth shared news of Witty’s departure two days after the WHO put out a statement about its role in coordinating a group of experts that pledged to work to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development. The experts include Moderna’s Tal Zaks, CanSino Biologics’ Xuefeng Yu and Sanofi’s John Shriver.

Exactly how bringing these people together will speed progress is unclear, but the WHO has created some resources that point to ways the organization could help accelerate the process. One idea is to set up a randomized trial with an adaptive design that enables the testing of new vaccine candidates as they become available for study in humans.

The WHO thinks the international trial will save time and money by freeing vaccine developers from the need to independently design and conduct studies. There are also hopes the trial will cut the time it takes to identify underperforming vaccine candidates. In the WHO’s view, the study could deliver data within three months of a vaccine being added to the protocol. 

Witty is set to join the WHO effort at the start of next week and co-lead it until the end of the year. In Witty’s absence from Optum, David Wichmann, CEO of UnitedHealth, will oversee the unit.