[CEO INTERVIEW] Will we have enough vaccines for COVID-19? [VIDEO]
Video by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min
For almost a year, world has been fighting a battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, a truly unprecedented, once-in-a-century health crisis, and while many countries hoped they were past the worst, many, including South Korea, are now grappling with new outbreaks.
However, in an attempt to create COVID-19 vaccines and end this health crisis there has been an incredible level of cooperation and rapid mobilization in the biotech world on a global scale.
The Korea Times sat down with Francis Van Parys, commercial vice president of Cytiva Asia Pacific, to learn more about how the scientific community is responding to the pandemic and the great demand for COVID-19 vaccines from around the world.
Cytiva is the world's leading provider of technologies and equipment for bio-manufacturers, helping them to produce treatments quickly and efficiently. Cytiva is currently teaming up with numerous biotech companies including biotech giants in Korea to expedite COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing.
Below is the full transcript of the interview with Francis Van Parys, who joined us on the third episode of our series of interviews with CEOs and top executives of global companies.
Q. For our viewers to better understand what your company does to enhance global health, could you tell us what Cytiva actually does to support the development of protein-based therapeutics and future treatment?
: So we are a start-to-finish bioprocessing provider so we essentially provide them with manufacturing solutions. If you kind of simplify and compare to what you do in a kitchen, in fact we sell the pots, the pans and the ingredients for the soup so essentially it's a combination of hardware and raw materials that are being used in the process to ultimately develop a protein-based drug. Protein-based drugs are biological drugs with a biological function as opposed to chemical drugs. They're typically more efficient, more impactful than typical chemical drugs and so they require a complex manufacturing system and developing system and so Cytiva is there to support the research and development as well as the manufacturing of those therapies.
Q. South Korea has some of the world's most innovative biopharma companies today. What does investing in the Korean market and supporting the growth of the industry here really mean for Cytiva?
: Well, remarkably Korea is our third biggest market globally so the innovation, the academic power, the scale that's happening here in Korea is unprecedented. We have some of the biggest infrastructure for manufacturing of biological drugs based in Korea. We have some of the biggest biosimilar product producers based in Korea and so we've been working with them for multiple years, more than decade. The concentration of the manufacturing scale in Korea is very important which is one of the reasons why we have a consultancy center based in Song-do which ultimately helps both large companies as well as starting bio-techs as well as academic partners with scale-up services, process development services, training center. Our mission today with these companies is to enable them with further productivity so they can manufacture at lower cost and therefore provide more access to more patients for these drugs as well as provide additional infrastructure as they are continuing to expand and expanding their production capacity and we are honored and privileged to be part of that ecosystem.
Q. South Korean biotech companies such as Samsung Biologics, Celltrion and Seegene are also part of your extensive list of clients. What are the crucial technologies that Cytiva provides for these companies that enable them to efficiently develop healthcare products?
: Seegene is another example of a diagnostic company where we are the tools providers so we provide components which then are used in diagnostic tests. In this case, most recently for COVID-19. What it actually means to them is not necessarily purely the manufacturing scale. It's also how we help them drive productivity, drive their costs down, do more with less so minimize the usage of raw materials, optimize and introduce new technologies that help them produce faster, lower doses and therefore you know giving access to a broader scale of patients.
Q. So as a global life sciences leader in development and manufacturing, how is your company specifically responding to today's pandemic?
: Large players in every continent have asked us to accelerate the production of some of those critical raw materials which they need and we have responded to that. We are also adding shifts around the manufacturing facilities around the world including in Asia but also in the U.S. We are expanding by adding new production lines and we're looking at doing further investments which we haven't announced yet but adding more manufacturing capacity to ensure that the ongoing demand for vaccine manufacturing which will likely go into 2022, we anticipate, to ensure that we are ready for it. In fact, we've hired globally about 1,700 people over the last five months and that's on a total of 7,000 so you can see the scale at which we are doing this. And that's happening across the industry at the same time. The logistics providers are doing the same. People like FedEx, UPS, DHL are investing to ensure the cold chain is there to be distributing those vaccines. The pharmaceutical companies are looking for additional capacity for those that are not manufacturing COVID-19 treatments to ensure that they can use the excess capacity for COVID-19 applications so I think it's happening across the industry, creative solutions and that's coming together into what will be an unprecedented delivery of vaccines that we haven't seen before.
Q. Cytiva has also partnered with various companies in the Asia Pacific region recently to combat COVID-19 and facilitate vaccine development. Can you tell us more about these collaborative efforts?
: Well, you mentioned the word collaboration and I think that's a really important one because the challenge that we are facing, no single institution or private company or government can face this alone and so collaborations are absolutely critical. With Takara Bio, a company in Japan, we've looked to improve their manufacturing process so that they can manufacture in more doses and also go to market faster. In Korea, we have a number of examples where we are the tools provider for diagnostic tests. We're working with some of the major players here as well to develop their monoclonal antibody for therapeutics for COVID-19. So we have a diverse set of collaborations which we play different roles in different stages of the development of the drug and you know that keeps us very busy at the moment.
Q. You have mentioned before that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought together the scientific community across the world so can you tell us about the effect that the pandemic has had on the scientific community worldwide and in Korea?
: I think we have not seen an effort of this scale before and if you think about the challenges that are involved with developing a vaccine starting from understanding the disease, understanding the biological mechanisms that are involved with treating it or providing a vaccine for it then studying the efficacy, the safety of that drug, looking at what manufacturing process we need, making it robust, ensuring there is a supply chain behind that manufacturing process and then later on the distribution. That whole set of challenges requires a lot of different stakeholders to collaborate in a way that has never been needed and never been possible to this extent. To develop a therapeutic and vaccine program for things like Ebola it took about 40 years for 300 programs to be active. It took about five months for a thousand programs to be active for COVID-19. So just in terms of scale, it's unprecedented for sure. It shows that the scientific community can do amazing things when the need is high. It shows that the innovation is at the sky high level at the moment and that's very promising for the overall healthcare ecosystem and the healthcare industry.
Q. There are more than five billion vaccine doses in advanced orders. Sounds pretty sizable. So what challenges are you seeing in fulfilling this demand?
: There's logistical challenges. There's obviously the infrastructure of the pharmaceutical companies which is insufficient. There's the supply of the raw materials which is somewhat insufficient and so there are challenges at every step of the way. Will we have sufficient vaccines available to serve the needs? Most likely. Depends on the number of programs that will be approved but I think the industry is doing a heroic job in terms of getting to the number of doses that we need.
Q. Since the COVID-19 outbreak global demand for South Korea's medical products, for example the COVID-19 test kits, has soared and local drug makers are also speeding up vaccine development. Is Cytiva looking for further collaboration with South Korean biotech companies?
: Yes, absolutely. So we are supporting various programs. We are actually involved in most of the active programs in South Korea in various forms. So I mentioned already being a tools provider to some of the diagnostic tests including people like Bionote or Seegene. We are involved in the manufacturing of the therapeutic that Celltrion is developing in terms of the raw materials that they use to do so for clinical trials at the moment but that's progressing quite well. We're enabling other players to manufacture some of the global vaccines so you may be aware some of the U.S.-based vaccines are also being manufactured in different locations around the world by partners of that pharmaceutical company and so where that is the case we enabled that as well. There's a number of biotech companies that are doing their own development of vaccine candidates and therapeutic candidates and we are helping them with scale-up developments and research services.
Q. South Korea has received praise across the globe for its proactive and thorough response to the pandemic early on. What are some steps the Korean government can take to continue this positive momentum as the pandemic continues?
: They've done a terrific job they also recently announced the purchase of 40 million doses of vaccine which shows that the Korean government is acting with determination and very swiftly to ensure the population has access to the vaccine. It's now to the companies to deliver those and they have an efficient distribution system for the population to have access to those vaccines. I have no doubt whatsoever that will be organized in a highly efficient and organized manner. Clearly the strategy is working while the economic impact is actually minimal so I think we should be considering ourselves very lucky to be in this country and be able to benefit from going through a challenging situation in a very well managed manner.
Q. What can we expect to see from Cytiva in the next five years especially in Korea?
In our industry, innovation is very fast. We talked about that before, we need to stay current with new therapies that are being developed and so as a solution provider and a manufacturing enabler we need to continue to invest in technologies. You know, one of the key elements of our future is to grow with biotech. There's so much innovation happening at the biotech community that we feel we need to be very close to them and so in order to help them with scale-up services, training personnel. I mean, one of the biggest limiting factors in the industry is we don't have enough professionals that can actually work in this industry so training is a big thing and with that we look with a very positive mind toward the future and we're optimistic about where we'll be in five years from now.