‘Drug development is a long, long process’: pharma CEO in Italy sounds a note of caution on Covid-19

The CEO of a global pharmaceutical company’s operations in Italy has advice for anyone expecting a Covid-19 solution anytime soon: Drugs and vaccinestake time to create — and to be sure they work safely.

“Drug development is a long, long, long process,” Massimo Scaccabarozzi, CEO of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit based in Milan, said Thursday on a call organized by the U.S. public relations firm Spectrum Science. He also heads the pharma industry’s trade association in Italy. “When we speak about a novel drug, if we discover a drug today, it will be in the house of a patient or in the hospital in 10 years.”

Italy has replaced China as the epicenter of new cases and deaths from the novel coronavirus. The pandemic first exploded in the north, overwhelming hospitals and the health care system even as lockdowns spread from small cities in Lombardy to Milan and then to the entire country.

Public health experts around the world say the U.S. is closely tracking Italy’s trajectory. “You should expect an increase in sick people and a shortage of ICU [beds] and ventilators,” Massimo Galli, director of infectious disease at Luigi Sacco Hospital in Milan, said on the call, echoing other projections. 

The coming surge heightens calls to speed vaccines or drugs to patients. 

Trump administration officials have raised eyebrows with predictions of drug approvals and suggestions that decades-old malaria drugs could be repurposed against the novel coronavirus. The president himself said “We’re very close to a vaccine” while discussing the Covid-19 pandemic at a February press conference in India. The White House later told reporters the president was referring to an Ebola vaccine, although the Food and Drug Administration already approved a vaccine to protect against Ebola in December.

Scaccabarozzi said timelines for vaccines are not as prolonged as for new drugs.

“With a vaccine, it could be shorter,” he said. “I hope within one year.”

Janssen’s two vaccine projects are among 50 Covid-19 efforts underway and listed by the World Health Organization. That makes Scaccabarozzi optimistic.

“I don’t want to say all 50 will become a vaccine. R&D is a long process and failure is almost frequent, but I am quite sure within this 50, we will be able to succeed,” he said. “We will never rest until we will be able to identify the right one.”

When asked specifically about Trump and politicians who say, essentially, hurry up, he said:

“I hope the politicians and institutions will help us as soon as we have some evidence in speeding up the procedure to approve drugs and vaccines, but I want to tell them, research is a very serious thing, something that is for the health of people so we need proof. You cannot just say in two patients that the drug can work — that can be by [chance]. The process is very serious and long. We have to trust the scientists to give them the time to be able to do what they do.”

Until then, Janssen is focused on its employees and their work not only on Covid-19 but also on maintaining production and distribution of existing drugs. There has been some evidence of stockpiling of drug ingredients in the supply chain, he said, which is causing concern.

Asked what advice he’d give to pharma companies in the U.S., Scaccabarozzisuggested better coordination at the local level with cities and regions in order to give more precise guidance to employees as well as to the customers and health care professionals they serve during the pandemic. 

“And don’t underestimate this.”

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