Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Swiss drug giant Novartis, talks with Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf about health care’s present and future in the latest episode of “Leadership Next,” a podcast about business leadership’s evolution.
Narasimhan is not only a Harvard-educated physician, but he has a significant background in both public health and public policy too. That makes him particularly well-suited to lead a major pharmaceutical company during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leaf and Narasimhan first discuss the timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine hitting markets in a safe way at scale.
Part of the reason a vaccine can take much longer to develop than treatments is the difference in safety expectations. Medications are given to sick patients, with some assumption of side effect and risk, while vaccines are given to healthy people in order to protect them from an external threat. So the “safety profile” of a vaccine needs to be extraordinary, according to Narasimhan, because it will be distributed to billions of otherwise healthy people.
“The risk-benefit equation is flipped when you try to develop a vaccine,” he said.
Another challenge is how little the medical community knows about the novel coronavirus so far. The need for more research on the type and amount of antibodies needed to provide immunity against the virus is delaying the production of a vaccine.
With this information in mind, Narasimhan guesses that a vaccine could be widely available in about 18 months to two years.
While the world waits for a vaccine, many in the pharmaceutical industry are working on developing drugs and treatments to help those that get COVID-19. Around the 10-minute mark, Narasimhan explains the different ways these drugs could be developed.
As the interview continues, Leaf and Narasimhan zoom out to look at the health care industry and public health as a whole, as well as business leadership during a pandemic. Do we have the right infrastructure in America to recover from this pandemic? How can the world make sure that it is ready for the next outbreak before it comes? What can leaders do to ensure access to technological and medical advancements in the developing world?
To hear the pair’s thoughts, listen to the rest of the podcast below.