Former CEO, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Chancellor, University of Nottingham
Balancing the need for providing access to medicine while simultaneously striving for innovation are the main reasons behind a successful run as the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), says Witty.
Andrew Witty speaks to Biz@India while he is on the cusp of exiting as the chief executive officer (CEO) of GSK, a pharmaceutical company based in the United Kingdom. Witty talks about the various facets of the industry while also shining a light on how GSK manages to be both innovative and also attentive towards the needs of the people.
As you prepare to handover the reins of GSK, what would be your biggest legacy that you leave behind?
Of what we have achieved at GSK over the past several years, one of the most important accomplishments has been the development of a substantial amount of innovation. If you look at the most recent Q3 numbers, 25 pc of our sales comes from products less than three years old. We have also made significant progress in increasing access to medicine. If we look at the number of people in the world being treated with HIV medicine, the availability of medicines in sub-Saharan areas, the progress on neglected tropical diseases like malaria – these are all areas where from an access point of view the company has done well. So I believe that the company has demonstrated the capability of doing balanced business to innovate and to drive access.
Has that also been taken up by other big pharma?
A lot of other companies are working in the access space. A very good example is the neglected tropical diseases, where we got 16 other companies to work together, to help in the elimination and eradication of those diseases. That is a great example of how the industry has really contributed significantly.
But there is still a lot of criticism from the civil society that big pharma can do a lot more and should be doing much more to make medicines available to the poorest sections.
Well, there is always more that can be done. Certainly at GSK we have been totally committed to looking at ways where we can leverage our strengths and our knowledge to help access in the developing and middle income world. We are one of the biggest suppliers in India, we have the biggest by volume supply to the emerging markets and we are the largest vaccine supplier in the world. We have looked at things like flexible pricing, flexible approach to intellectual property and what we have been able to demonstrate is that you can evolve your business model to improve access. The numbers speak for themselves. We have seen real impact around the world. We have also been able to demonstrate that there is a way you can create real impact in the developing world and not sacrifice innovation. We can achieve both.
Do you think this protectionism that one keeps hearing about, will be a barrier against access to medicines?
Well I hope we don’t think too much of this protectionism coming along. The reason why, is that there aren’t an awful lot of facilities that manufacture modern medicines, there are only one or two in the world. So the idea that every country can have its own manufacturing facility is not possible. In the area of medicine, in vaccine, we absolutely rely on a global trading environment. It will be really harmful to everybody, if someone starts putting barriers up. That will be harmful to people on both sides of the barrier, and I really hope that doesn’t happen. I really don’t see it and I have no expectation of that happening.
Aren’t you worried about statements made by United States of America’s President Trump?
While we pay attention to what someone in a position of power says, what we really need to wait for and work through is what the administration does, what goes through the legislative process and what policies are finally adopted. Thus it is still too early to take a view.
How has Brexit impacted innovation-focused companies like yours?
For the moment we are governed by the European Medicine Agency. But probably in Britain we won’t be part of that agency. So what is critical for us is that the new regulatory regime is straight-forward, predictable and not too bureaucratic. Beyond that we don’t believe it will have a significant impact on our dayto-day business or operation.
With the increasing civil wars and refugees around the world, is there any initiative to take medicines to refugee camps?
As far as refugees are concerned, we made an announcement in the second half of last year, where we came up with a very creative and pragmatic approach to solving this problem. A refugee camp can sit within any country and we said we were going to conceptually think about refugee camps as if they were a Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) market, thus we have been able to ensure that refugee camps and particularity the NGOs that work in those camps, can source important vaccines at the lowest prices in the world, without having to go through a complicated procurement process.
What are the challenges you are leaving behind for the new CEO Emma Walmsley?
This is a very big and dynamic company so there will always be lots of challenges. Like all businesses, the company has to consistently improve. The most interesting opportunity is a very big pipeline of new medicines coming through. She will oversee all those results and make the decision on how to take the pipeline forward. That’s going to be an exciting period. Not everything is going to work, there will be some failures and some successes, but that will be an interesting first 18 months for her.