Ex-GSK chief Andrew Witty summoned back to the frontlines of vaccine development at embattled WHO
During his 10-year tenure at GlaxoSmithKline, Andrew Witty made vaccines one of his signature areas of focus, leading the pharma giant to an approval for an influenza vaccine during the H1N1 pandemic and bagging Novartis’ vaccine unit in an asset swap before he retired in 2017.
Now, two years into his new career managing drug benefits, Witty is back in the frontlines of the race against a deadly virus infiltrating the world.
The WHO has asked Witty to co-lead a global effort to “accelerate the development of a Covid-19 vaccine,” according to Optum. He will thus be taking a leave of absence from the pharmacy benefits manager, where he is CEO.
Witty, whose appointment will be effective April 20, is stepping up at a tumultuous time.
Just hours ago, President Trump publicly chastised the UN agency, accusing it of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” and made the stunning announcement that the US would suspend its contribution to the WHO. Its $400 million contribution in 2019 made up 15% of the organization’s budget last year.
That’s while the WHO is preparing to launch an appeal for well over $1 billion to fund operations against the coronavirus worldwide.
It’s unclear yet what Witty’s exact role will be. But last week the WHO released a draft blueprint for a possible international trial to evaluate multiple vaccines concurrently. Under that framework, investigators can expect to know the benefits and risks within 3 to 6 months of the candidate entering the trial, the outline read.
Whether that timeline is realistic will be up for debate, as critics have cast doubt on Sanofi and GSK’s promise to make a vaccine available in a year. Considering that some side effects take 6 to 12 months to develop, an approval may not come for two years — and even that would be considered incredibly fast, an expert consulted by SVB Leerink said.
The blueprint suggested a steering committee and a data monitoring committee to oversee the study, governing the adaptive aspects of the study. Optum declined to make Witty available for an interview.
Emma Walmsley, Witty’s successor at GSK, has said that the world’s going to need more than one vaccine to meet the enormous demand.
Echoing that point, the WHO has brought together a group of experts to work on vaccine development. In a public statement, the group pledged to “continue efforts to strengthen the unprecedented worldwide collaboration, cooperation and sharing of data already underway.” Tal Zaks of Moderna, Xuefeng Yu of CanSino Biologics, Kate Broderick of Inovio — representing the first three groups to bring a vaccine into human testing — were in the group, which also featured Sanofi’s John Shiver and officials from the FDA and NIH.