Viewpoint -- Will Your Company Pass Muster?

March 23, 2007
How well can you protect your business and your employees in a pandemic crisis?

Welcome to the new era of preparedness -- and the enormity of the issues it encompasses -- from global health to terrorism, climate strategy and energy security.

Indeed, the opportunities and challenges for manufacturers can seem overwhelming.

Coming to New York City recently to take part in a conference on the new realities of risk, I couldn't help but think how much my role -- and our world -- have changed since I became President and CEO of U.S. operations for Roche in early 2001. While issues of globalization and security were a growing concern for the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry at the turn of the century, few people could have predicted how important homeland security would become, much less that I would have a seat at the table with the likes of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former White House Counterterrorism Chief Richard Clarke, to discuss Roche's role in dealing with national threats. Convening private and public sector leaders to address issues was a significant step forward, but it also raised as many questions as it answered,.

Manufacturing companies have substantial responsibilities for preparing for a possible influenza pandemic. At a 2006 summit on corporate pandemic preparations, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt made this point in blunt fashion when he stated: "Avian flu ... will severely test the best-laid plans ... and many companies are not making any plans at all. Those expecting the federal government to ride in and come to their rescue [will] be sorely disappointed."

As the maker of an antiviral product (Tamiflu) that is the primary intervention used by the World Health Organization (WHO) against the H5N1 flu strain, Roche was catapulted into a unique situation early on - where the stakes in dealing with the global pandemic threat were high. I welcome the opportunity to share what we've learned with fellow business leaders to help navigate this new landscape.

In 2003, when the H5N1 virus resurged in Asia and new human cases were confirmed, we began collaborating with the WHO on a rapid response protocol as well as planning measures to address a possible pandemic. The most pressing need was to help ensure availability and accessibility of Tamiflu globally. We invested in a massive scale-up of production capacity to meet rising global demand for the drug, and have since increased production ten-fold. In discussions with HHS, it was requested that Roche, a Swiss-based company, establish manufacturing of Tamiflu on American soil. We now have a complete supply chain in the U.S.

Over the past three+ years, we have brought on 17 new production partners and granted sub-licenses for manufacture of oseltamivir for mainland China, India and developing countries. Roche has also reached an agreement to provide generic oseltamivir for the African market and will offer technical know-how and clinical data to help expedite production and regulatory approvals.

While your company is probably not in the business of making a flu treatment, the threat of a pandemic certainly has a direct impact on your business. There are economic considerations that can have profound and long-term consequences and may even jeopardize your company's survival. Moreover, because a pandemic endangers the well being of a company's employees and customers, businesses must consider their moral, and often, legal obligation to take protective measures.

Should the worst happen, and a pandemic comes and goes, we'll be judged on two critical areas: how did we protect our business, and how did we protect our people. While each company is different and has unique vulnerabilities, here are some broad areas of planning that we have addressed to help mitigate pandemic risks:

  • Employee Protection = Business Protection: Roche has more than 68,000 employees in more than 60 countries, and we've undertaken efforts to provide for their well being in a pandemic situation. In addition to stockpiling basic necessities, businesses should consider joining governments at the federal and state levels to develop plans for the distribution of medications such as antivirals and potential vaccines, personal protective equipment (masks), and other supplies determined to be critical in a pandemic situation.
  • Employee Policies: How will absenteeism be defined and managed? How does your business instill in employees the confidence that it's safe for them to come into the office? What can you do now to encourage awareness and participation in disease control? For example, at Roche, hand sanitizers are located throughout the campus at our New Jersey headquarters to facilitate good hygiene practices.
  • Supply Chain: Significant advances must be made in identifying critical choke points in the supply chain. A new Deloitte & Touche survey of risk executives found that 53% believed their supply chain would be "very or severely affected" and only 10% saw themselves as well-prepared to cope with supply-chain effects. Roche is working on plans to enable production of all its critical medicines in the event of a pandemic and convened more than 100 of its key vendors and suppliers in March to hear from nationally-recognized experts and discuss pandemic plans.
  • Operations: Businesses need to determine their operational systems and processes in a pandemic virus. How will the business function in the face of substantial absenteeism? Which employees are essential to maintaining basic work functions? Which employees need to be on-site, and which ones can work from home?

Even with a big "head-start," we at Roche are faced with a continually evolving situation that requires constant reexamination of our role as well as the strategies and tactics we employ. While it is difficult to predict when a pandemic might occur, the best way businesses ultimately can prepare is through this unprecedented collaboration between a company, its stakeholders and public sector institutions. Whether it's planning for a natural disaster, pandemic or terrorist attack, the benefits of engaging in the collaborative act of preparation -- in terms of lessons learned, systemic improvements and people's attitudes -- will endure long afterward, regardless of whether the event itself occurs.

George Abercrombie is President and Chief Executive Officer of Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. Roche is the U.S. pharmaceuticals headquarters of the Roche Group, one of the world's leading research-oriented healthcare groups with core businesses in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. For more information and resources on pandemic planning, visit Abercrombie recently hosted a seminar on pandemic preparedness for over 100 manufacturers and other business partners at Roches U.S. headquarters in New Jersey.

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