Fast Confession – Global pharmaceutical company manager Radka Lang: There’s still many pandemics ahead of us
At the age of thirty-five, she’s an executive of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Radka Lang has experience with European legislation in the Czech Republic as well as abroad and speaks five languages. In an interview with LP-Life.com, this young woman talks not only about the current coronavirus situation, but also about the costs of COVID vaccines research or cancer medicine production.
How does a pharmaceutical company this big feel about work in the last year? How has it changed due to COVID?
It has changed enormously, on many levels. Health care, which used to be the overlooked, Cinderella sector of the whole system, had now become the epicentre of the state, the government, drawing attention left and right. Of course, there’s a positive effect as well – people have become more aware of the value of human life and death. They started to realize there are drugs that save human lives every day.
That’s certainly one aspect of this; on the other hand it also changed specifically for us, and in a major way as well. After all, healthcare in our country used to be very traditional, based on the personal contact of our representatives with doctors and with their environment. Since then we've had to make both our internal and external communication so much more digital overnight. I have to admit, it went surprisingly smoothly and well; our employees adapted to it very quickly and agilely.
Which drugs did the Czechs want until then, and how did the distribution change? At the beginning of the pandemic, if something was labelled as „preventive“, people bought it right out. Do you see purchasing or production differently now?
As for our portfolio, it didn’t really reflect that, since we focus on oncological treatment and highly specialized drugs for chronic and complicated diseases, which can only be administered in dedicated treatment centres. These aren't things you can buy without a prescription at a pharmacy. We don't have a lot of non-prescription vitamins and drugs in our portfolio, we sell prescription drugs. These areas were, of course, affected as well, but not dramatically.
The shift we see is in the area of vaccination. We're one of the four major companies producing vaccines. Whereas in the past the vaccination coverage of the population has been declining, now we expect it to improve in the future, as vaccine awareness and the overall perception of vaccine benefits have improved thanks to public debate. And if we – both the state and us – approach this the right way and manage to explain the benefits of vaccination to people, I believe it can further improve in the future.
Do you also buy the vaccines, or do you produce them?
No, we don't have a COVID vaccine.
Why is that?
That is, in my opinion, a very interesting aspect. Given the uncertain profitability in the future, when we look at the industry, I don't want to say all of them, but an awful lot of companies have started producing candidate vaccines. And that is a technologically and scientifically complex process. In the beginning, there were about fifty candidate vaccines, two of which were ours. Unfortunately, we eventually had to abandon the development, as it turned out that the candidate vaccine did not have a sufficient immune response. But we tried.
A candidate vaccine means it's in the testing phase?
Yes. In a very short period of time, we all have tried to develop some kind of COVID vaccine. Some have succeeded, some have not – I’m just saying that to point out how complicated the process is. In the beginning, there were about fifty different companies, now only a handful of them are successful.
None of them are Czech, though.
That’s because it’s really an extremely complicated process, requiring a great amount of scientific know-how and production capacity. In no way it’s easy, not even for a large, established international company.
Will you personally get vaccinated?
I sure will, as soon as it’s possible.
Aren't you scared?
No, absolutely not. If there's one thing I'm afraid of, it's
COVID and its consequences. It turns out that not only the course of the disease, but also its consequences can be very serious. Lung damage can occur, and many people have cardiovascular problems afterwards. I think that if you compare the pros and cons, some potential side effects are completely marginal compared to the disease.
What do you think the side effects of the vaccine might be?
I don't know, it's not our product. Unfortunately, I did not read the SPC, but there are traditionally described post-vaccination symptoms. I'm not a doctor, though. Another thing is that I have grandparents who are in their 90s and parents of retirement age, and if there’s no other way to keep seeing them than getting the vaccine, that alone is enough motivation for me. For me, protecting my loved ones might be an even more important aspect of vaccination than protecting my own health.
However, we also do not know how effective the vaccine is and for how long. I, for one, am still skeptical about it, and many other people feel the same. They say it can do more harm than good, and that it is useless, if the vaccine is no longer effective in half a year.
I don't think it's useless. There is that aspect of protecting others and establishing collective immunity, meaning the more people are vaccinated, the less the virus spreads. Another thing is that you never know what the disease will do to you and how hard it hits you. Indeed, tens of thousands of people around the world die from it every day, there’s no doubt about that.
How can the common man imagine the cost of all this, and does the state pay for it?
I don't know how much the state pays for it, I don't have access to that information. But I do know that all drugs and vaccines development costs billions of dollars. When you start researching a candidate drug or vaccine, there are multibillion-dollar investments in the beginning, and no one can guarantee it will work out and a vaccine will come out of it.
You said your company was developing something like that.
Of course, we develop innovative medicines in all areas.
That means how many billions of dollars spent on innovating, per year?
In 2019 it was $ 186 billion. By comparison, this is three times the budget of the Czech Republic over the same period.
The good news is you make a profit.
It has to be financed from something, the resources have to be there at the beginning. Indeed, it requires a huge amount of investment to even get to a candidate molecule or vaccine and then bring it to life.
You said there were many more pandemics ahead. What did you mean by that?
Maybe I should have put it that we rather have to reckon with the fact that something like this is possible. The arrival of the pandemic was expected by many scientists even before COVID, it’s nothing new. It's something that we must reckon with and ideally learn from the current situation, so that if, God forbid, another pandemic comes, we would be able to respond with much more flexibility and discretion.
Do you think face masks and disinfecting will be a part of our life forever?
I personally hope not. If we accept the logic of vaccination, sooner or later the population will have a vaccination coverage high enough so that they are no longer needed, the virus gets eliminated somehow and collective immunity develops. This means that when the number of vaccinated individuals in the population exceeds some seventy-eighty percent, collective protection against the virus occurs. Even people who cannot be vaccinated due to immunocompromising medical conditions and the like shall be protected then.
You studied political science. What draws you to the field of medicines?
I have spent my entire career in external relations, that is, communication with the public, especially with the state administration, the state sphere. Healthcare is absolutely unique in that you're advocating a great case. My job is primarily to defend patients' rights, to ensure better access to medicines for Czech patients so that they get the best meds possible. Seeing that the products we create, innovate and develop save lives around the world every day makes it a great job. We have calculated that we treat about half a million people in the Czech Republic with Czech medicines.
Is it difficult to communicate with the state sphere?
Having experience from my previous work and political science, I don't find it difficult. I compare my work to interpreting from one language to another, i.e. from business to political and vice versa, because these two worlds are not always able to understand each other. It's a bridge between business and government – I really enjoy it. I can see why this work is so important and essential and I try to bring it closer to the so-called second level stakeholders. On the other hand, I also try to understand the perception of people from the other side, to see what their priorities are and to realize that they, too, of course, have their own perspective, which we have to look through.
Do you have an example of a real case where you saved a patient's life?
We are not allowed to publish that.
And do you personally know about such a patient?
During the COVID, especially at the beginning, other diseases such as cancer got sidelined quite a bit. How do you see it from your professional perspective?
The COVID pandemic rescheduled priorities in all fields and sectors. As for our company, I don't think the focus has been lost, we keep doing what we can. There were, of course, some restrictions, such as with clinical trials, because access to patients was limited. This is an aspect that is happening all over the world. Recently I've been looking at some studies on how this has affected scientific research specifically, and of course, just those measures alone, such as work from home, have slowed the research down a lot. Public investment in university research has changed as well. How much the research has slowed down, if at all, that’s more like something we'll see in the long run.
Overall, I would also like to emphasise prevention, which I am very dedicated to as well. I think that we often forget very simple things and that many diseases can be prevented by relatively simple rules and attitudes. For example, it is proven by the World Health Organization that about a quarter to a third of oncological diseases could be prevented with more exercise, eating well and avoiding smoking. This is how we should approach life, not waiting to be saved by a pill.
How does your work affect your private life? Do you have any, or does work in a multinational company leave no space for privacy?
My work is demanding, but very satisfying as well. It is also due to pandemic measures that I have recently observed a change in the sense of private and professional life intertwining. I don’t live my life working from nine to five, leaving the rest of my life for after 5 pm. For me, the balance between personal and professional life means these two components complement each other in a way where I do what is needed when it is needed. For example, I don't mind working late, but on the other hand, I don’t feel guilty when I go for a run in the middle of the day while it's still light outside, or pick up groceries wearing headphones and listening to a teleconference. I have the advantage of MSD being a very progressive company in this respect.
So what do you do in your spare time?
I try to compensate for the hours of sitting with everyday exercise, I am an avid reader and I relax the most in the kitchen – for example by long cooking of bolognese sauce.