Merck’s Julie Gerberding, Former CDC Director, on the Future of Vaccines
(Page 3 of 3)
to have their child immunized. They see the diseases, and understand how life-saving those vaccines can really be. If you are thinking globally, it’s not the most important obstacle we face. But it’s clearly a powerful local issue in many westernized or developed countries. It’s a growing issue. We have to work harder to engage people in the conversation. And that conversation needs to be led by trusted and credible people, not necessarily vaccine manufacturers.
X: So do you just get out of the way then?
JG: No, we have a responsibility. The most important component of our contribution is that we do make trustworthy, reliable products that address health needs. We should be proud of it. These are critically important products for global health and local health. We don’t need to be silent about the contribution we are making, and our employees should take pride in it. Having said that, for people who have already made up their mind that there are issues around the need for vaccines, the manufacturers are not likely to be the best resource for changing their minds. People need to hear balanced information from trusted peers, and/or their doctor. That’s what we need to learn—what really does motivate people’s behavior. The old model would say ‘we just need to give people better information. If they have the facts, they’ll make the right choice.’ The new model is that it’s not a left-brain decision for many parents—this is a right-brain, heartfelt decision. While they can understand objectively that vaccines are important means of protection, when they are sitting with a child on the lap and deciding to give them a shot, it becomes emotional for the parent. Not all parents respond to that situation the same way.
X: When you look at the landscape of vaccines, there are maybe five or so major producers of vaccines left. Do you see much innovation out there beyond those companies, in small biotechs, and in the nonprofit world?
JG: I’m very bullish on vaccines, I think there is incredible innovation going on in the biotech environment. Innovations in antigens [new vaccine targets] and adjuvants [immune-boosting compounds], but also innovations in delivery methods and stability, in combinations that put more than one vaccine in a vial. There’s innovation in vaccine logistics, innovation in vaccine financing, and in partnerships, and translational research. The problem with vaccine innovation is that it isn’t fast. There’s a long runway for these products, and it takes a long time for these products to be commercially relevant and available. You have to be very patient. I’m learning.
X: What’s life been like for you in industry?
JG: I love it. The biggest surprise for me is working in a company where the passion and the commitment to science and integrity of science is as strong as it was when I was working for the CDC. I don’t feel like my work environment has changed very much in terms of what gets people up in the morning and motivates them to come to work. We have an incredibly passionate group of people, and I’m privileged to have a chance to work here.
X: Have you had surprises in the switch to industry, or impressions that might surprise your peers?
JG: From a personal perspective, there’s an enormous amount of learning. I’m not trained, and wasn’t brought up in a marketing environment. I have to learn how to think about value in ways that are focused on respecting what people really need and want, while at the same time keeping in mind what’s practical and feasible from a private sector perspective. Sometimes that balance is challenging. We have lots of great ideas about things we’d like to be able to do, but if they don’t make business sense, it’s going to be a lot harder for us to do them. Or, we have to creative and think about who we can partner with. How can we move this into a nonprofit? Or how can we get a venture capitalist to share risk on this? Can we create a joint venture? The exciting challenge for me is how we can figure out creative ways to do the things we want to do, because they are the right thing to do even when the business model isn’t oriented toward the blockbuster.