Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews BIO president Jim Greenwood

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews BIO President and CEO James Greenwood.

Read excerpts from the interview below:

 

Clemons: Can you give us a snapshot of what the road to a vaccine looks like? 

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Greenwood: Well, there are probably 100 vaccine projects going on right now around the world. If you look at it, most pessimistically you would say, well, it can take 10-15 years to make a vaccine. There are some viruses for which we've never succeeded in making a vaccine. Think about HIV, herpes — never done. And we've never developed a vaccine to thwart a coronavirus. So, that's the bad news. The good news is the world has never, ever seen a situation in which this much science and this many companies, large and small, are arrayed against one target. And so I believe that we will succeed not only in developing good therapeutics, antiviral treatments and ultimately vaccines. And I think that will be sooner than most people think. 

 

Clemons: Some have said that chaos is necessary to bend the curve of how long it takes to get to that creative therapeutic, that breakthrough. I'm interested in whether you think it's chaos. Or are things going the right direction? 

Greenwood: It's not chaos. In fact, the first thing that BIO did, when this whole thing began in mid-February, we sent a letter to all 800 of our biotech members who are in the drug discovery business, asking which of them have the scientific capacity, the drug development experience, and/or the manufacturing capacity to get involved in fighting COVID. About 60 of our companies have responded in the affirmative, and then we held in mid-March a virtual summit with 500 people, including from the industry as well as from the government. And we have what we call the BIO Coronavirus Collaboration Initiative, which is designed to make sure that we're not in chaos, that we share what we're doing, we share data, we coordinate like never before, and we're doing that globally.

 

You've been worried about biodefense issues for a long time. Can you grade the literacy of your former House colleagues right now? Are they making the right decisions? Do they understand the seriousness of the moment? 

Greenwood: Well, if I were to editorialize, I would begin by saying that unfortunately, not enough members of Congress and not enough people in this administration and previous ones have taken seriously the inevitability of a global pandemic. You referenced that bipartisan commission on biodefense co-chaired by Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security, and former Sen. Joe Lieberman. I serve on it, Tom Daschle, former senator, serves on it. And in October of 2015 we put out a blueprint for biodefense, and we said there will be a global pandemic, here are some things you should do. Immediately appoint the vice president to be in charge of planning for that pandemic, not responding after it happens, but planning for it years in advance. That didn't happen. We said, in each urban area let’s create a system of stratified hospitals. Decide in each area, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc., which will be the hospital best equipped first to take the first wave of patients from the pandemic. And let's make sure they have huge storage capacities, stockpiles of ventilators, PPE, gloves, masks, everything, and then have the next hospital, and the next hospital down the line prepared. So there was much we could have done.

 

Clemons: You worried that the investment in science was lapsing so that innovation was really going to be negatively impacted. We're at a moment where people are seeing the biopharmaceutical industry as one of the key hopes for them. Do you think that the criticism of the pharmaceutical industry has changed because of the timing that we're in now? 

Greenwood: Well, what's been remarkable about the moment in history we're in right now is that the science has never been better. I mean, science always gets better because it builds upon itself. But when you think about gene therapy and cell therapy and immunotherapy and the ability to use CRISPR-Cas9, etc., our capability of defeating every disease known to man has never been greater. At the same time, we face the most harsh political headwinds the industry has ever faced. People are angry at the drug industry. Now in my opinion, what they're really angry about is the fact that their insurers impose larger and larger deductibles on them. So when they go to the drugstore they end up paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars that they may not have or worse yet they leave their drug behind. So what I would hope comes out of this is as people watch, praying every day, when are we going to get treatments? When we going to get vaccines? That it will be completely visible that the biopharmaceutical industry — large, middle size and small — are working 24/7. And we will solve this problem. We will save lives by the hundreds of thousands by the millions. And I hope there's a little bit more of a hesitancy to condemn the industry and a little bit more interest in figuring out how do we actually protect patients with regards to what they're forced to pay out of their pockets. 

 

Clemons: When we see vaccines and antivirals develop, do you think your industry needs to do anything different by way of how costs are figured out, how accessibility is managed. Can everybody who needs this get it, as opposed to just those who can pay for it?

Greenwood: So I'm absolutely certain that the industry will do everything in its power to make sure that no one goes without the upcoming vaccines because they can't afford what's required to come out from their pocket. That's a moral principle by which we should live. And I think that you'll see that in spades here. But again, I have to remind everyone, it's not just about what the price is, it’s about what comes out of pocket. So let's make sure that we don't have ever increasing deductibles that cause people not to be able to afford the health care that they need.

 

Clemons: How do they look at how this unfolded in China and with the WHO, which is so much in the news now, about the origins and about the importance of being transparent with data. It looks like nobody was transparent early on. So even when the signals were there, sometimes they weren't grabbed quickly enough. But you folks are another form of intelligence establishment. How do you look at how this unfolded and who the villains are? 

Greenwood: Well, the villain is the virus. Let’s start there. Look, the virus would have been in a bat, no matter what anybody did. The virus, if you assume it jumped from a bat to a human, and I'm not making any guesses about whether that's exactly what happened or whether it came from the laboratory. I think we just don't know. But having said that, I think the Chinese were slow to share with the world and with their own people what was going on. That is the nature of a totalitarian state. I think that we were slow to respond in some regards, and there were too many people who were downplaying the severity of this thing. And when you have data that showed about a month or so ago that when you asked people, do you think someone you love or someone you know will have the COVID-19 disease: It was like 35 percent of Republicans said yes, and 70 percent of Democrats said yes. And I'm a Republican. And so when we get to the point where a global pandemic becomes the subject of partisanship, that's a real sign that our whole electoral system needs to change. 

 

Clemons: I'd like you to speak to someone in Bartlesville, Okla., and tell them what BIO and your member can do to change this environment and change their lives. 

Greenwood: Well, I think what the biotechnology industry is going to do for everyone in Oklahoma and across the world, is first make sure we have the best diagnostics so we can sort out those people who have been exposed to the virus and have recovered and those who have not. We're going to develop antivirals to stop the ability, like remdesivir, I think you'll be seeing that used earlier in the course of the disease, it will stop the virus from replicating inside of your body once you're infected. We'll have treatments to treat the symptoms. So, through diagnostic and good therapies, good treatments, people will begin to inch their way back to normalcy. And then we'll have a vaccine. Whether that's nine months from now or 18 months from now, we don't know. But we'll have a vaccine that eventually will protect all of us, everyone on the planet, so that we can put this officially behind us in history and then prepare better for the next pandemic, which will come.