Friday, November 11, 2005 | The president of the world’s biggest pharmaceuticals company, Pfizer U.S. Pharmaceuticals, was in town Thursday to talk to Rotarians about keeping employees, and profits, healthy.
In a question and answer session after his prepared speech, the drug executive gave his views on the AIDS crisis, a possible flu pandemic and Pfizer’s continued presence as a major player in La Jolla.
Asked first about a possible flu epidemic and Pfizer’s research into flu vaccines, J. Patrick Kelly, who goes by “Pat,” said his company is not in the vaccine business.
He said that even if the company wanted to, it would take Pfizer years to enter the vaccine market in any meaningful way. That’s because they would be required to meet a number of federal regulations and standards that Kelly said are very specialized, making the development of vaccines a difficult field of research to enter.
Asked to elaborate, he outlined the main differences between what Pfizer does and what vaccine-producing companies are all about.
“The nature of a vaccine is that you inject everybody,” said Kelly, “and hope to prevent the illness from occurring in everybody.”
That’s a dangerous game to play, he said.
“What you’re injecting is the disease itself. … There’s always risk associated with that. All vaccines have a risk of either not protecting people against the disease, or maybe causing some other untoward effects.”
Such problems can prove costly, Kelly said.
“Over the past several decades, those untoward effects have caused the liability costs associated with producing, manufacturing and distributing vaccines to be extraordinary.”
That’s why, Kelly said, Pfizer is quite happy where it is. He feels the company is best placed to aid and abet other companies that specifically work on vaccines. That means partnering with companies and offering Pfizer’s expertise to other, smaller companies.
Kelly had been giving a speech on efforts by companies to promote prevention and wellness within their workforce. He was asked why he thought more companies don’t work to safeguard the health of their employees.
That, he said, is an easy one.
“They view it as an added cost, to an already costly health care system,” he said.
But, Kelly argued, they shouldn’t. The positive effects of such policies, he said, can be seen within a company’s workforce within six months. He cited as an example a health awareness program Pfizer has been running in Florida in an area where there are many asthmatics.
“What asthmatics in Florida tended to do,” he said, “was when they began to have breathing problems, because of their disease, they would go to the emergency room and say ‘I can’t breathe.’ When we introduced the Florida program, what the asthmatics would do is to call the 24-hour nurse hotline. What the nurses would do is to turn around and say ‘Have you used your inhaler?’ They would use their inhaler and they would all of a sudden magically breathe again.”
That was just one example, Kelly said, of how such programs could work to decrease, not increase, a company’s overall spending on its workforce’s health care. Such a program has just been implemented at Pfizer’s La Jolla campus, he said.
Kelly was asked about his company’s continued investment in that campus (the company recently purchased the land they had been renting in La Jolla for $372 million) and his views on San Diego’s strength as a biotech hub. He was asked his views on where San Diego’s high-tech industry sector is heading.
“We believe the San Diego biotech and biopharm industry is extraordinarily vibrant and extraordinarily important on a world-wide basis,” he said. “Our La Jolla campus, as an extended part of that universe, is crucial to us.”
The La Jolla campus specializes in oncology, ophthalmology, antiviral and diabetes products, Kelly said, and will shortly be releasing what he claims is a groundbreaking new drug for the treatment of various types of cancer.
“We continue our commitment to this state because there are very important activities going on here,” Kelly said. “And because we want to be associated with the very vibrant community that surrounds us here.”
Shifting gears, and moving the discussion further afield, Kelly was asked to comment on his company’s policies on the distribution of antiretroviral drugs, used for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa and other areas.
Specifically, Kelly was asked if Pfizer could make such drugs available at a cost that third-world countries can afford.
“We already are doing that,” he said.
According to Kelly, Pfizer has, for a long time, been offering other drugs associated with the HIV virus – but not, specifically, antiretroviral drugs – not just at discounted rates, but free of charge to anyone who wants them.
The problem, he said, is one of logistics.
“They (governments in Africa) didn’t have the distribution infrastructure to get the drugs to the people who needed them,” he said. “The issue in Sub-Saharan Africa is not the cost of medicine; it’s the ability to get the medicine to the people that need it.”
Kelly pointed to efforts Pfizer has made to increase AIDS awareness in Africa as a further example of his company’s policy on the global AIDS epidemic.
If those African countries didn’t take advantage of his company’s generosity, Kelly said, there’s not much he can do.
“We’ve been turned down by many governments with the offer of our medications free, no charge, free,” he said. “… I don’t know if there is any lower price than free. Yet, when we’ve done that, oftentimes drugs sit on a loading dock and never get to the patients who need them.”
Lastly, Kelly was asked to comment on recent announcements by the company that it would be laying off some of its workforce.
Pfizer will be shutting down some of its manufacturing plants in the United States, he said, and there will also be “some movement of personnel” around the country.
“Some of those may or may not affect La Jolla,” he said, adding that the details of the staff changes have not yet been worked out.
“But in general,” Kelly said, “we remain committed to the area and will be for the foreseeable future.”
He said he doesn’t know when any workforce changes and site closures will be going into effect.
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