Novartis CEO says future pandemics are bound to happen. Here’s how to prepare for the next one

A logo sits on display on a building at the Novartis AG campus in Basel, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

Stefan Wermuth | Bloomberg | Getty Images

LONDON — The chief executive of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis on Wednesday outlined how policymakers and the health care industry can learn from the ongoing coronavirus crisis to improve pandemic preparedness.

“Pandemics have been with us for centuries. If you go back into the recorded history, probably on the order of 15 pandemics in the last 200 to 300 years. And, so pandemics periodically happen, and they are probably bound to happen again in the future,” Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan told Julianna Tatelbaum at the virtual CNBC Evolve Global Summit.

“We know what the solutions are — it is just very hard to maintain the investments over time. We need world-class surveillance to really identify when viruses move from animal populations to human populations and we need a policy framework for that information to be very rapidly shared,” he said.

“We need warm preparedness in health care systems, we need them to maintain the stock of critical goods that they need to really [help] intra-patient care. And lastly, we need to keep investing in therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.”

Narasimhan said the topic of future pandemic preparedness was discussed by health ministers and other biopharmaceutical executives at the G-7 health minister’s meeting earlier this month.

“We know the answers and we know what needs to happen. The tricky thing, I think, is going to be four [or] five years from now, often what happens is attention moves away from pandemic preparedness, investments go down and then the susceptibility levels go up,” Narasimhan said.

“I’m optimistic this time, I think this pandemic has really been a wake-up call. I also think we have better technology than we have ever had from a therapeutics and diagnostics standpoint, so hopefully for the next pandemic will be even better.”

The Basel-based firm has seen its efforts to repurpose existing medicines to fight the coronavirus pandemic come up short thus far. Novartis announced on Dec. 14 that a late-stage clinical trial of ruxolitinib in addition to standard of care therapy showed no statistically significant reduction in severe complications of Covid-19, including death and admissions to the intensive care unit.

The company had previously said late-stage trials of anti-inflammatory medicine canakinumab failed to help patients with Covid-19.

More recently, Novartis said that alongside Swiss drugmaker Molecular Partners it would start clinical trials for an investigational medicine they are developing to treat Covid-19.

The clinical trial program, referred to as “EMPATHY,” is designed to examine the safety and efficacy of ensovibep in patients who are in the early stages of Covid-19 infection. The aim is to prevent worsening symptoms and hospitalization.

The first phase of the study will enroll 400 patients to identify a dose with optimal safety before a second late-stage trial moves ahead with an additional 1,700 patients. The results are expected in the first half of next year.

Covid cases worldwide

In the week through to June 15, the number of new Covid-19 cases and deaths continued to decrease, with more than 2.6 million cases and 72,000 deaths reported, according to data compiled by the World Health Organization.

It marked the lowest weekly incidence of cases since February, with weekly cases down across all WHO regions except for the African region when compared to last week. The number of new deaths in the past week fell across all regions bar the African and Southeast Asia regions.

To date, more than 176.6 million Covid-19 cases have been reported globally, with 3.82 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

(With Inputs from cnbc)

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