It’s been a year since Andrin Oswald took over as CEO of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, the 5th-largest vaccine business in the world, headquartered right here in Cambridge, MA. I met up with Oswald before he gave a keynote speech at a recent MIT Enterprise Forum event, and he took a few minutes to give me his perspective on innovation in the vaccine industry—and, of course, on swine flu.
Novartis is on the front lines of the effort to combat swine flu, aka H1N1, which the World Health Organization classified as a pandemic in June. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has contracted Novartis to produce 90 million doses of H1N1 vaccine for the U.S. population by the end of November.
In Cambridge, the Novartis now has more than 100 researchers dedicated to the development of future vaccines for multiple types of infections, Oswald told me. Globally, the vaccines unit of the Swiss drug giant employed 4,774 people and reported $1.8 billion in revenue in 2008 (accounting for only 4 percent of sales at Novartis). But the vaccines unit hired about 1,000 new employees over the summer, mostly in manufacturing, to enable the firm to answer swelling demand for flu vaccine.
The company is also building its first cell-based vaccine manufacturing facility in the U.S., in Holly Springs, NC, where the raw material for the vaccine will be grown in cultured cells rather than chicken eggs, as has been the practice for some five decades. HHS is contributing $486 million to the development of the North Carolina vaccine plant in return for priority access to it in the event of another pandemic like H1N1, according to Oswald.
Here are some excerpts from my brief yet informative chat with Oswald before he took the podium at MIT:
Xconomy: What makes Novartis’ technology and process for developing vaccines differen from what other companies have?
Andrin Oswald: I think what makes us unique is not so much the process but the talent of people that we have in our R&D department. The history of our vaccines business dates back to the 19th century, and it is linked to the very roots of vaccinations with [Emil von] Behring. Professor Behring was one of the founders of vaccines in the 19th century. And at our site in Italy, our history includes the contributions of [Achille] Sclavo, who was one of the lead scientists in vaccinations in the 19th century. So you have this heritage that is attracting people and talent. There is a dedication and passion here that I have not seen anywhere else.
X: What research are you doing in your division of Novartis here in Cambridge that excites you most?
AO: There are two elements that I am excited about. One is the cell-based influenza [vaccine] manufacturing, which is an area where we have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, to be better prepared for a pandemic. We all know that while we do the best we can do with the current technology infrastructure, there is room for improvement. The second field I am excited about is our meningitis B vaccine, which is right now at the end of Phase II in the U.S. and in Phase III in Europe. The reason I am excited about this is because it is a new modern way of developing a vaccine where we use reverse genetics to identify genes for proteins that are common to the 400 to 500 stains of meningitis B strain that are circulating. It was simply impossible with old technology to develop a vaccine against such complicated bacteria.
X: What do you think is the most exciting new technology in the vaccine development?
AO: I think it’s the combination of reverse vaccinology, where we try to identify the right antigens by understanding the genome of the bacteria, and structural vaccinology, where with modern three-dimensional technologies we are able to actually visualize the antigen—based on which we can almost design the right antigen that you would use in a vaccine to create the intended immune response.
X: What serious infectious disease threats are we not paying enough attention to here in the United States? Flu, of course, still grabs a lot of headlines.
AO: Influenza is clearly one of them, because we haven’t really solved the influenza challenge. One area that should be of high priority is nosocomial infections [which patients pick up in hospitals]. The belief that antibiotics are going to solve the problem is wrong. The disease burden and the cost to care needed to treat someone is quite expensive. I think that better vaccines against nosocomial diseases like, for example, pseudomonas and clostridia, is an area that needs more attention.
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