What’s the effect of coronavirus on the operation of pharmaceutical companies? We asked the GM of Roche
We saw unprecedented cooperation between rival pharmaceutical companies in the past 14 months. This may even affect post-Covid times, Irma Veberic, general manager of Roche (Hungary) Ltd. told Portfolio. Head of the Hungarian operations of one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, she said that digitalization has sped up in healthcare as well, while certain diseases should receive more attention even amidst a pandemic.
What’s your assessment of the past 14 months in terms of pharmaceutical development and manufacturing? What are the most important lessons learnt?
We saw several fundamental changes, including some that will remain with us in the long run. I think Covid-19 is a kind of catalyst for the sector, which has and will have primary influence on processes like the digitalization of healthcare. For example, the significant increase of telemedicine services - be it a phone or video consultation – clearly shows that it is absolutely essential to accelerate this process in Hungary. We may say that there were only several minor changes before the virus situation, particularly in the last 10 years. We often only beat about the bush about important issues such as the availability of drugs or sustainability of the system. However, we need significant changes both in Hungary and globally, and that requires determination.
An unprecedented cooperation has formed between rival pharmaceutical companies that often fight fiercely against each other, for example in the area of joint development of Covid-19 antibodies or ingredients.
This could have been almost unthinkable before, but now a professional collaboration was quickly established with the involvement of Roche and several other large pharmaceutical companies. And of course this brought about significant changes in our life as a company as well; 1,500 employees switched to telework and we transformed our communication with our partners. We already started to reform our Hungarian operations before Covid-19; the essential purpose was to shift focus from selling pharmaceuticals to offering complex solutions for patients’ problems and the resulting situation, as an innovative partner of the Hungarian healthcare services. A major advantage of the new digital communication channels that have become widespread due to the coronavirus is that we can give all our domestic partners access to the Roche global knowledge base and international network, whereby we can bring even more medical innovation to the country, while at the same time helping to improve the efficiency of healthcare spending. This process – that includes digitalization – was definitely accelerated by the appearance of Covid-19.
Digitalization is considered a corner-stone of healthcare developments for a good while. What are parts of this process for pharmaceutical companies, for Roche? What kind of trends are you seeing in the Hungarian market?
It seems to me that the most important question in relation to digitalization is how to improve the efficiency of healthcare processes all along the patient path. What we have to realize here is that
the entire patient path, each activity of the healthcare system can be digitally recorded, and this information should be evaluated and used for patients’ benefit.
The operational environment of healthcare has been dramatically changing; technology giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook entered the ecosystem and joined to pharmaceutical companies. Using for example our smartphone or a simple smart wristband provides us with huge amount of medical data, not to mention glasses like Google Glass or smart clothing. Now the only question is whether patients are ready to use these devices, and how physicians can use the collected medical information. We have to find a place for pharmaceutical companies in these processes.
It was just announced that the Budapest service centre of Roche will be granted a government support of 104 million forints. What does it mean in practice? What kind of new open positions do you have?
We opened our Budapest service centre in 2006, and the number of employees increased from 900 to 1,300 in the past four years. Now we are recruiting an additional 150 employees: essentially we completely transform our HR structure, and we need workforce for that. Our Budapest office already provided over 60 countries with financial, procurement, HR and IT support, but the range of services and solutions offered by the centre will be widened to include new tasks. Thus we’ll create complex HR positions in Hungary, searching for new colleagues who can support the HR operations of the whole group from Budapest. The operation of our local office covers not just the European region but the Middle-East and Africa as well.
Roche also developed a therapeutic product against Covid-19. What can you tell us about these products, when are they expected to be used in Hungary and how?
We always emphasize that prevention, the vaccine is the most efficient tool against this virus.
During the last year we developed 15 different coronavirus testing processes, including highly permeable, centralized laboratory diagnostic solutions, among others antigen, antibody and molecular-based methods. Other tests aim at the assessment of the severity of human immune response to the virus.
Results of the clinical trial performed with the antibody cocktail developed by Roche were announced a month ago. The Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) of the European Medicine Agency issued a scientific recommendation for the product, and published it on its website on 02/26/2021. This enables the national authorities of EU Member States to authorize the use of the product in their respective countries, in accordance with local legislation, even before marketing authorization is granted by the European Commission. Based on the scientific recommendation of the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use, OGYÉI grants Hungarian patients access to the product based on a so-called compassionate use.
Hungary is one of the first countries in the European Union where the product has already been delivered and is available for patients.
Roche is a key global player in the field of therapeutic treatment of cancer. A number of experts are of the opinion that the situation is not very promising: the fight against coronavirus drains significant resources from this area.
Though we do not have accurate data about Hungary, the situation in the region is really worrisome. In Slovenia, for example, one-third less patients were diagnosed with cancer in 2020 than in 2019. This clearly shows that healthcare resources were allocated to the fights against Covid-19, though early detection of cancer may save lives. We believe that the numbers are similar in Hungary.
It is expected that there will be much more patients with stage 3-4 cancer in the Hungarian healthcare after the coronavirus pandemic eased, and we should also expect more fatal cases.
However, it is important to add that medicinal products for cancer treatment are constantly available. Regular medical checkups, however, are the common responsibility of doctors and patients with regard to any disease or illness. The following example is a perfect illustration of the current situation:
Let’s suppose that two patients of the same age are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in Hungary and the Netherlands. Based on the comparison of international statistical data, the Hungarian patient will live 10 years less than the Dutch patient. And this is not right, we cannot accept that.