Pharma’s response to COVID: GSK

A few months into the pandemic, the world is now moving beyond managing the crisis, with more focus on addressing the collateral damages and shaping the future. As part of a new series looking at how pharma has responded to the pandemic, Neale Belson, SVP UK & Ireland and general manager for the UK at GSK, tells us that it is “absolutely critical” to do this with the pace and out-of-the box thinking of the past months.

Belson became GSK’s general manager in the UK in March, just before lockdown came into effect, and because of this he says he has now got to know himself and his colleagues better than he could have anticipated.

“Working remotely has given me greater appreciation and understanding of their home life, personal priorities and challenges. I have also seen how my colleagues handled the pressures of the pandemic to find solutions to brand new challenges, motivated by their passion for protecting patients and improving the way they live their lives.”

Belson says that the obvious place for GSK to start in its response to the pandemic was to leverage its experience in vaccine discovery.

“This specific vaccine effort, however, is like no other in its sense of urgency and scale of need,” he says. “With COVID, even the approach to vaccine discovery is transforming.

“The key word from the beginning has been ‘collaboration’,” he adds.“We are working in partnership with companies and research groups across the world to help accelerate the global effort to develop a vaccine to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19.”

“This specific vaccine effort, however, is like no other in its sense of urgency and scale of need. With COVID, even the approach to vaccine discovery is transforming”

He highlights GSK’s “unprecedented” partnership with Sanofi, where the two companies are combining their science and technologies to develop an adjuvanted COVID-19 vaccine, which entered clinical trials in September 2020.

But he stresses again that this collaborative effort needs to extend beyond the research and discovery phase.

“We are already thinking of how we will make a potentially successful vaccine candidate available and affordable globally, and in the UK we have already agreed with the government to supply up to 60 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Beyond the urgent need for treatments and vaccines, the pandemic has also challenged the NHS to adapt quickly to establish new ways to keep patients, especially those most vulnerable to the virus, away from hospitals and clinics and remain in the safety of their own homes.

“We’ve also had to ask ourselves how we can support the NHS to meet those demands, working as a partner to protect the public,” says Belson. “This will only become more vital as we enter the latter months of the year and support the NHS as they attend to the backlog of patients that await non-COVID related examination and treatment and as they prepare for winter, which will bring additional pressures to the system, with the flu season upon us.”

One approach GSK has taken is to leverage its experience through a series of webinars that aim to support HCPs to build their skills and confidence as they take consultations online.

“This not only protects vulnerable patients but also our vital NHS workforce, reducing their exposure to the coronavirus and maintaining their ability to remain at work,” says Belson.

GSK has also started to pool knowledge into an accessible online resource hub, with the aim of creating a “one-stop shop” of guidance and support for respiratory HCPs across the NHS.

This provides free advice and training to support HCPs as they adjust to new tools and ways of working, and to guide respiratory patients through the journey with them.

The company is also contributing to the NHS’ ‘Your Covid Recovery’ online tool as patients return home to recover from the coronavirus.

“Severe asthma, lupus and cancer patients have been able to follow government guidance to reduce their exposure to COVID-19 by receiving care and testing in their homes,” says Belson. ”We’ve brought forward formulations for self-administration by working closely with regulatory bodies, as well as doubling homecare offerings and launching a patient app.

“These initiatives share an underlying factor: the use of innovation to improve people’s lives in these new circumstances and beyond.”

Patients aren’t just vulnerable during a pandemic, and Belson says that much of the novel approaches companies have tried in the past months will continue to be present and further evolved in the future.

“The NHS has provided an incredible level of care and support during this time, demonstrating the solutions our unique healthcare system can offer patients and HCPs.

“By giving severe asthma patients the independence to access their treatment from their sofa, we are freeing up time that HCPs can spend seeing and treating new patients on waiting lists in clinics. By those with respiratory and autoimmune diseases being able to see their GP on a screen and not through a waiting room, we are protecting them from unnecessary exposure to disease and complications. These are the types of solutions we will try to explore and support as the pandemic continues, working as a trusted partner alongside the NHS and patients.”

Belson says that the pandemic has emphasised the importance of asking ‘how’ care is administered as well as ‘what’ care is administered.

“We now need to continue working with our partners to benefit patients long-term.”

This series is supported by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)