Janssen’s Gaëtan Leblay on leading during the COVID-19 crisis

COVID-19 is putting unimaginable pressure on healthcare systems and the companies looking for solutions to end the pandemic. Paul Tunnah spoke with Janssen’s UK managing director, Gaëtan Leblay, about how firms like his must adapt and collaborate to help patients during these difficult times.

Leblay has been part of the Janssen organisation for 17 years, touching most commercial roles in the company across both the US and Europe.

He now finds himself fronting the UK arm of a company that is tackling the pandemic head-on – Janssen being one of several pharma firms to put a vaccine candidate into development.

But the company’s response in the UK goes beyond drug development. Leblay says that tackling the pandemic will involve “leveraging existing solutions to make them work in the current context for the NHS”.

Janssen had already announced in 2018 that it would be collaborating with the UK government and multiple partners from academia and industry on the UK’s first-ever dedicated Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC), and Leblay says such collaborations continue to be key to the company’s response to the current pandemic.

“Our first responsibility is to ensure treatment continuity, and we are working with several different institutions on that,” says Leblay.

“We’re also working with patient associations to make sure they are well informed and well supported to cope with the disease in the very complex environment we are now facing.”

“The crisis has been so disruptive for nations that the overall appreciation of life sciences will evolve, and the ability to discuss and implement innovation will be quite different”

This is important when many patients in the disease areas Janssen operates in, such as oncology and immunology, are immunocompromised, making them particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

To this end, Janssen has recently initiated a virtual forum bringing together different patient groups and enabling them to share problems, solutions and best practice with one another.

Leblay adds that they have also put in place contingency plans to increase the size of their medical information group, through redeployment from other parts of the business, in case of a potential influx of requests from patients and HCPs.

“If needed, we are prepared to expand our teams massively. Many employees who are currently field-based are ready to take calls from patients if that time comes.”

Meanwhile, on a local level, Janssen is financially supporting those associations that will experience peak demand over the next few months, particularly in the area of mental health.

“This pandemic is placing enormous strain on people’s emotional well-being and through the J&J Foundation in EMEA, we have been able to make additional funding available to our charity partner Mental Health UK in order to help them sustain their helplines and advice services, which have seen an exponential increase in demand since the outbreak began.”

The third pillar to J&J’s collaboration strategy focuses on R&D.

“We’re working closely with universities, research centres, regulators and the government and having pragmatic, tactical dialogue at all levels to make sure we serve patients, support the NHS, and help overcome the crisis,” says Leblay.

R&D initiatives could be as simple as donations to research centres like the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and could also involve repurposing existing drugs.

“We are adapting some ambulatory oncology drugs in order to help give the NHS spare capacity,” says Leblay. “If we are able to help keep immunocompromised patients at home, we can remove potential bottlenecks in hospitals.”

Janssen, of course, is part of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, which is also providing newly-created field hospitals, like the seven Nightingale hospitals across the country, with consulting support – and has even created policies to free up medically-trained employees who want to help the NHS, giving them 14 weeks of paid leave to do so.

The aftermath of COVID-19

When it comes to the long-term impact of COVID-19, Leblay believes the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital tech in healthcare and life sciences and will also drive innovation across the board.

“Digital has been quite visible in helping to solve the crisis, and the speed of innovation in all areas of the industry has been striking. There are already dozens of vaccines being looked at and hundreds of drugs being repurposed. It might soon be thousands.

“As a result, after the pandemic people may now expect science to move faster. We’ll see radical innovation becoming more integrated, more frequent mixing of product and technology, and more cases of technology driving healthcare productivity.

“This health crisis has been so disruptive for nations that I think the overall appreciation of healthcare and life sciences will evolve, and the ability to discuss and implement innovation will be quite different. Likewise, the conversations around the budget and positioning of healthcare will change significantly.”

He says there are likely to also be changes to how healthcare systems deal with capacity issues.

“One big problem at the start of this, especially in the UK, was that healthcare systems had a lack of capacity. We’ll need to look at how we can better allocate people in the workforce to deliver public healthcare.”

Leblay says he hopes the drive for collaboration across the sector will also be something that remains in place once we return to a new normal.

“Hopefully, we’ll see healthcare become more networked in every sense. From R&D to delivery, you will have new webs of collaboration that will combine to deliver improved outcomes for patients.”

The industry has been talking about patient centricity for years, but Leblay says that COVID-19 is now truly putting patients at the centre of healthcare.

“Social distancing is a pretty strong request for them, and the steps towards relaxing the lockdown will potentially rely on patients and their compliance with things like tracking apps. Patients are becoming even more central. That was an existing trend, but now it’s going to be amplified.”

Summing up, he says the future will be “greater, faster innovation, more productivity,  patient centricity and collaboration”.

Luckily, Leblay says he sees a drive for all this in the industry already, and he is confident that pharma and healthcare will be able to solve the crisis together.

“People are driven by purpose. The leaders of this industry are focused on patients. I know that many people see pharma as a strange industry, but when you actually talk with all the top life sciences leaders in this industry you see how they really care so much about the patient.

“That is driving the incredible collaboration that we have across the board.

“People also understand that it’s a must-win battle. It’s not a race; it’s a marathon and we’re all on the same team. There is no nitty-gritty competition here – we are all working together for the greater good.”

Leading in times of crisis

In his position as UK MD, Leblay sees his role as “making sure that people are emboldened, focused and able to deliver on the critical role our company has in helping to solve the crisis”.

He says the company’s leaders aimed to “lead by example” in the early days of the pandemic, such as by sharing pictures of themselves working in their living rooms to help employees overcome apprehensions about working from home.

“Our first priority is to patients, customers and employees. That has always been part of the J&J Credo. We know that everyone is feeling a lot of uneasiness at the moment and it’s important to us that our people feel assured in the work we are doing to support them and to serve patients.

“A huge part of that is communication and transparency. We have regular dialogue with teams and frequent Q&As. The questions could be as simple as, ‘What about vacations?’, but we take them all, because everything matters. We want them to know that we care.

“When I don’t have an answer to something, I am honest about that. In different ways, we are all vulnerable at the moment and I would rather there was no gap between my style as a leader and who I am as a person.  This way, it helps people to understand your rhythm and then they are able to follow it.”

Leblay stresses that at the core of all this is a genuine desire and dedication from everyone in the industry to tackle the pandemic.

“This is our moment, and I’m proud to see so much energy and force behind our response to this crisis.”

About the interviewee

Gaëtan Leblay began his career with Janssen in France 17 years ago; holding a range of positions across the organisation in both the US and Europe, before assuming the position of managing director for Janssen UK & Ireland in 2019. Prior to joining the UK organisation, Gaëtan lived in Hungary where he spent three years leading Janssen Central Europe. In March 2020, Gaëtan was elected onto the ABPI Board.

About the author

Paul TunnahDr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which  combines industry leading publications (www.pharmaphorum.com) with a specialist strategy and content marketing / communications consultancy (www.pharmaphorumconnect.com). He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations.

Connect with Dr Tunnah at https://www.linkedin.com/in/paultunnah/