Pfizer’s Hwang: ‘Connecticut Very Important to Us’
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has a long history of innovation, from its origins developing antiparasitic drugs in the mid-1800s to mass producing penicillin during World War II and its breakthrough COVID-19 vaccines.
“We were the biggest supplier of penicillin during World War II,” Angela Hwang, the company’s chief commercial officer and president of its global biopharmaceuticals business, said at the Sept. 21 New England Life Science & Biotech Summit.
“Fast forward decades later, who knew that we would be in a pandemic, and that Pfizer would be put to the test once again.
“Thankfully, we were able to repeat our legacy and and do what it is that we’re all meant to do every day when we come to work at Pfizer, which is deliver breakthroughs.”
Hwang spoke with Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council executive director Paul Pescatello at the New Haven summit, which was produced by CBIA and Marcum LLP.
She is responsible for overseeing the delivery of all Pfizer’s 600-plus medicines and vaccines to patients in 185 countries.
‘Product Launch Every Day’
While Hwang focuses on the manufacture and delivery of medicines and vaccines, she also manages collaborations with earlier stage biotechs and research institutions.
“It does feel like a product launch every day,” she said. “And I have to remind myself that every launch and every approval is a miracle.
“And I always remind myself to celebrate those colleagues and to say thank you, because we can’t take those for granted wherever they are in the world.”
Pfizer’s Groton site, which employs 2,500 people, is the company’s largest research and development facility and played a critical role in rolling out the first COVID-19 vaccine in 2020.
The company also has a clinical trial unit in New Haven.
“Groton is a big legacy site, we’ve been there for a really long time,” Hwang said. “And I would say it’s the pride of Pfizer.
“I also love it because it’s the place where we do a lot of our interesting formulations.
“Take for example, when it was time to make the COVID vaccine, we couldn’t, as there was not enough supply of lipid nanoparticles in the world.
“And of course, Groton, they were the ones who stepped up. And actually Pfizer began to make our own lipid nanoparticles because we couldn’t buy enough of it.”
Hwang described Pfizer’s Connecticut legacy as “long and historic,” adding that the state “is very important to us, on multiple levels.”
Pfizer is partnering with New Haven-based Arvinas on a breast cancer drug that was recently awarded fast-track development status in the United Kingdom.
And Pfizer’s acquisition of another New Haven company, Biohaven, bore fruit in March this year when the Federal Drug Administration approved a new nasal spray migraine treatment, which Hwang called “a significant breakthrough.”
“We have great collaborations with companies here and relationships with so many of you in Connecticut, whether it’s a biotech company, the governor’s office, and academic institutions in the state,” Hwang said.
“It goes beyond just the people we have employed here.
“Many of our talent and our scientists come from Yale, Quinnipiac, and UConn—we employ a great number of people from those universities, as well as participate and do collaborations.”
Hwang said that while Pfizer’s legacy was built on anti-infectives, vaccines now represent a significant share of the company’s products.
“In the last several years, we have really ramped up our vaccine portfolio to a scale that we never would have imagined, one that is, world class and world scale,” she said.
Pfizer is the only pharmaceutical manufacturer that offers three critical respiratory season vaccines—flu, COVID, and RSV—with Hwang highlighting the development of combination vaccines.
“We’re actively working on combination vaccines, like a flu and COVID combo, or even better, a flu, COVID, and an RSV combo,” she said.
“This starts to then take vaccinations and how you think about vaccinations to a whole new level.
“The market is telling us that people want to take multiple vaccines at once as it’s convenient, it’s better for the pharmacies, it’s better for the whole workflow.
“We’re super excited about the science of putting all of this together, but it’s also daunting. We’re also taking a crack at how we can make sure that we can meet patients needs in a different sort of way.
“And I think that these combination vaccines are going to be the next holy grail in vaccinations.”
Technology and Innovation
Pfizer won FDA approval last month for its updated COVID vaccine—developed again with partner BioNTech—which targets the latest variant of the virus.
“What you’re going to see now is the continuous refinement of the COVID vaccine to match the strain of the season,” Hwang said.
“The way you should think about the COVID vaccine from here on is that it’s going to be updated every season.
“You’ll be able to have a match that will be most efficacious, because it’s meant for the season that you’re in because the COVID virus actually is mutating quite rapidly.
“The strain that we see today is very, very far from where we started several years ago.”
Hwang said the mRNA technology that drove the rapid development of Pfizer’s first COVID vaccine remains central to the development and manufacture of newer vaccines.
“The reason why mRNA is such a great technology for things like flu or things like COVID is because they mutate quickly, and they move quickly,” she said.
“You can also manufacture it very quickly—we can actually make a COVID vaccine in 110 days.
“In our R&D world, we’re constantly looking at the platforms and the technologies that are best suited for the disease.”
Pescatello also asked Hwang about Pfizer’s Accord for a Healthier World initiative, designed to provide access to its full portfolio of medicines and vaccines on a not-for-profit basis to 1.2 billion people living in 45 lower-income countries.
“The idea for the Accord for a Healthier World is one that was born actually with an insight that we got out of COVID,” she said.
“It’s not just about just delivering these medicines, it’s also for Pfizer to act as a convener, and as an advisor, and a support mechanism to do infrastructure and systems strengthening in those countries.
“So, why is that important? During COVID, we were criticized a lot for not giving our vaccines to developing markets.
“But actually, that wasn’t true. Because we offered our vaccines to every country in the world, of different shapes and sizes and different GDPs at the same time. People just took them at different times.
“Countries have different abilities to reach out and do whatever it is they need to do to procure the vaccine. So you obviously expect a difference in the way that countries procure, and there are great differences, not just in the low income countries.
“But what was interesting is that despite COVAX, which purchased a great number of vaccines from us, despite the fact that there were these massive and very generous donation programs into every single country in the world, people didn’t get vaccinated.
“And so why is that? It isn’t because it’s not available—because it was—it wasn’t that they didn’t have it, because it was delivered. It was that they weren’t used.
“And then when you look at why wasn’t it used, it was because the population didn’t understand it. And they didn’t have the infrastructure in many instances to be able to actually vaccinate people.
“It became very obvious to us that there are a whole bunch of things that are insufficient in the healthcare system to really help patients to use their medicines.
“We’re going to provide the drugs, but everybody else come in and help this country, use these drugs, bring education initiatives, help them with regulatory and policy change, so they can get the drugs approved, help them to build food systems, strengthening and bringing more medical professionals or more patient education, so that patients can understand and aren’t mystified and don’t distrust these medicines.”
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