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Shaun Grady, Lucy Cavendish Fellow-Commoner, tells us about AstraZeneca’s recent activity in the pandemic

Shaun Grady is Senior Vice President Global Business Development Operations, AstraZeneca and Fellow-Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College.

In January I had the privilege to be elected to a Fellow-Commonership of the College having worked with colleagues on a number of mutually beneficial projects with the College previously, particularly promoting science as a career option through mentoring by AstraZeneca colleagues and speed science career counselling style events.

In my role at AstraZeneca I head up the group that is responsible for putting in place the Company’s major business development transactions; acquisitions and licencing, partnering and collaborations and divestments and out-licencing. These are often large, high value, high strategic importance, share price sensitive,  complex transactions with partners and purchasers pretty much from anywhere in the world. The team I lead are made up of people with scientific, legal, finance and broad business backgrounds and are based in Gothenburg in Sweden, Gaithersburg in Maryland US, as well as here in central Cambridge.

As AstraZeneca has come to more to the fore of frequent public attention during the pandemic, this article covers three areas;

  • Some reflections on how business development and partnering teams have responded to the various containment measures over the last six months;
  • Secondly touching on how we as a company responded to the pandemic, some aspects of which you will have seen in the media; and thirdly
  • Finishing up by sharing some thoughts about how the pandemic might have changed, or modified, the business of business development going forward.

Overall my impression has been that business development groups and team responded to working entirely remotely remarkably well. Of course at the outset there was something of a perception that people would somehow take advantage of being out of sight from their colleagues and line managers and take it easy, when of course the complete opposite happened. People jumped in at the deep end of a world without commuting or business trips embracing instead Zoom and Teams with a vengeance and gusto. People working on partnering and acquisition projects were in fact well practiced at being project team oriented and operating in high performing cross functional teams remotely. It also became clear that people responded and rallied really well to the fact they were involved in activity that had a healthcare focus and took positive energy from being able to work on a constructive project. Added to that, the very senior executive stakeholders in our and other businesses were similarly facing a working environment without commuting and travel and suddenly had even more time to review deal decks and the like. Approval turnaround times were short-circuited and timetables shortened.

AstraZeneca prides itself in having the ability to do business development quickly where appropriate and we routinely see the option of moving at speed as a tactical advantage and this continued to apply over the period of the containment measures. During the lockdown we negotiated a $6bn co-development and co-commercialisation collaboration with Daichi Sankyo with respect to Daichi’s antibody drug conjugate programme DS-1062 in development to treat lung and other cancers. The entire process from a pre- due diligence non – binding offer, through due diligence to contract negotiation and finalisation to approval by the respective Boards of Directors took twelve weeks, and all conducted remotely without a single face to face interaction. Granted it helped hugely that there was a pre-existing collaboration between the two companies already, but even so this was still quite an achievement. Talking to the people who do my job in other so – called Big Pharma companies, I hear very similar things and some other very sizeable transactions have been concluded and announced in the healthcare sector in recent weeks including Sanofi buying Principia Biopharma, J&J acquiring Momenta, and Novo Nordisk becoming the new owner of Corvidia Therapeutics. 

So rather than people taking it easy, team leaders and managers have instead had to work hard to ensure their colleagues took steps to maintain a suitable work: life balance and good mental health and to try and ensure working from home didn’t become living at work. 

Turning to AstraZeneca’s specific response to the pandemic and the important part that partnering and collaboration played in that, there were probably five separate but overlapping aspects to our role in combatting the virus.    

Firstly, I am sure like most healthcare and other organisations, our initial focus was to:

  • Secure the safety of our workforce, in our factories and laboratories and those colleagues who work with healthcare professionals in hospitals and elsewhere in the field as well as office based employees;
  • As far as possible maintain the supply of our medicines to patients globally which is by no means a trivial matter to keep the supply chain functioning fully especially when there were spikes in purchasing patterns as the lockdown took hold; 
  • Wherever we could continue the treatment of those patients enrolled on clinical trials of our experimental pipeline products; and
  • Support healthcare workers around the world; AZ donated nearly nine million face masks distributed by the World Economic Forum Covid Action Platform.

In doing so we were able to learn from our colleagues in AstraZeneca in China who had already experienced and responded to the crisis there. 

Secondly we quickly turned our attention to identifying the potential products in our pipeline and portfolio that could potentially be repurposed to prevent or treat the serious organ failure associated with the virus and we were able to move a number of our medicines rapidly into new clinical trials.

The third aspect sought to leverage our established world-leading antibody engineering capabilities, screening thousands of antibodies for the most effective neutralising properties against the virus. In the event two antibodies were selected which we had been working on under a collaboration with Vanderbilt University. The commencement of Phase 1 trials for these potential medicines was made earlier this month.

The area that unsurprisingly attracted the most media and public attention has been our work on the prevention and protection from the virus with Oxford University. Under that agreement AstraZeneca has committed to test, trial and prepare for the global supply of what has become widely known as the Oxford Vaccine and which we in the company refer to as AZD1222. In a little over four weeks AZ leaders and business development teams completed the licence agreement with Oxford and also put in place the funding, manufacturing, supply and purchase agreements creating capacity for over 2 billion doses, should it prove to be safe and effective to the satisfaction of the relevant regulatory agencies around the world. 

This involved negotiating and documenting transactions with:

  • Governments and governmental organisations including the UK Government, the EU Commission and BARDA;
  • Non - governmental organisations such as CEPI and GAVI  and the Serum Institute in India with particular focus on ensuring supply to low and middle income countries; and
  • Vaccine partners for example in China and Russia.

And importantly all these and other arrangements secure the supply of the vaccine on a not for profit basis during the period of the pandemic. 

The fifth and final further area was working with the University here in Cambridge alongside our colleagues at GlaxoSmithKline to expand the Covid-19 testing capacity in the UK significantly to supplement the capacity in the so-called Nightingale Laboratories set up in a number of locations including our former Alderley Park campus in Cheshire. The Cambridge Testing Centre was built from scratch again in a matter of weeks bringing together the screening capabilities of AZ and GSK and the robotics and other know-how of the University all located in the University’s rapidly repurposed Ann McLaren Building on the Cambridge Biopharmaceutical Campus. 

So a Herculean effort – which is continuing – not only from AZ but from and with all our partners across industry, academia, government and non- governmental associations and agencies and all done at speed and often at risk.

While it is obviously far too early to form any concrete conclusions from these experiences, it is clear a few themes have and continue to emerge. 

While we live in a relatively sophisticated society in the developed world at least, the pandemic has served as a reminder that the way we structure society is not terribly robust and is in fact quite fragile. We’ve also observed and learnt just how resilient, inventive and adaptive people and organisations as well as families and friends can be. In a work context what has been striking – but perhaps not surprising – is the extent to which people have been willing to step up and go so very far beyond what could have reasonably been expected.

There is no doubt there will be a significant acceleration to problems being addressed and solutions being sought through increased levels of collaboration – and – amongst different groups and organisations than we have all been used to working with  previously, particularly public – private partnerships. Governments can’t be expected to do everything and in any event don’t have the wherewithal to do so. The Oxford Vaccine project is a case in point.

For business and partnering practices in particular some early learnings might therefore be;

  • Getting used to hanging out with partners and prospective partners you don’t usually hang out with while recognising they have a different set of drivers of their own, challenges and stakeholders, in the case of government including tax payers and ultimately voters to satisfy;
  • We will obviously have to continue to find different and more effective ways of working. The pandemic hit fast forward on the ‘pivot to digital’ across business and that included the provision of healthcare. Virtual GP consultations and pharmacies are becoming the norm. Zoom and Teams are here to stay until taken over by the next generation of technologies.
  • In terms of partnering, there is no question we need to find ways to do deals faster and make the process simpler. AI will have an increasing role to play in due diligence and contractual document production and review. The pandemic has shown what we can do when we put our minds to it. There can be no going back to twelve to eighteen months deal processes.
  • And of course it will probably be a very long time before anyone is picked up by taxi at 4.00am in the morning for the airport to fly to a Partnering Conference attended by over ten thousand people in a single city centre Convention Forum. We need to find ways to replicate the personal relationship building component of business development in a virtual way where trust, confidence and understanding of each other’s positions can be put in place to provide the best prospects of building successful partnerships.  

As lockdown measures tentatively ease in different ways and rates around the world, companies like AstraZeneca are carefully considering the best way of returning people to the workplace to ensure we access the benefits of innovation and teamwork that co-location with colleagues and collaborators creates especially in life -sciences and which brought us to Cambridge in the first place. This will take time and be gradual but hopefully we will be better placed to improve the provision of drug discovery and development and healthcare more broadly as a result our unexpected recent collective and individual experiences.

Read Shaun Grady Fellow’s profile here.