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COVID pandemic a shot at redemption in pharma sector, says Glaxo CEO

The Covid-19 pandemic is a chance for the pharmaceutical industry to overhaul its reputation and better explain the drive for profits, GlaxoSmithKline Plcs chief executive officer said.

Speaking at the third annual Helen Alexander Memorial Lecture, Emma Walmsley said the sector’s push to find vaccines and drugs to end the crisis, if successful, could change the perception of pharmaceutical companies for the future. The huge investment needed to keep discovering and producing medicines isn’t well understood, she said.

“The world has never seen our industry as more important,” Walmsley said. “We have a chance to improve our reputation if we deliver on our purpose to find solutions responsibly. But we also need to explain better why it’s in everyone’s interests that we continue to do it profitably”.

Glaxo has partnered with companies including France’s Sanofi to create a potential Covid-19 vaccine. The British pharmaceutical giant is using its adjuvant technology — additional ingredients that improve efficacy and make it easier to produce shots in larger quantities — for multiple candidates in a bid to find a successful jab. The company has said it wont take any profit from a vaccine during the pandemic period.

Pharma companies have faced growing criticism in recent years over high drug prices, particularly in the US, where the issue is a key topic ahead of the November election. In an unusual step, a group of drugmakers, including Glaxo, published a joint letter this month promising to avoid any safety shortcuts on a Covid-19 vaccine, in a bid to assuage the mounting mistrust in the sector.

Walmsley, who has worked at Glaxo for more than a decade and became CEO in 2017, is one of only a handful of women in the FTSE 100. The event, set up in memory of British businesswoman Helen Alexander, who held roles including CEO of The Economist Group and directorships at Huawei Technologies Co. and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, focuses on women on business. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde and ITV chief Carolyn McCall spoke previously.

Asked how being a woman has influenced her approach to running Glaxo during the crisis, Walmsley shrugged off gender as a factor but emphasized the need for diversity in business more broadly.

Walmsley said Glaxo had offered financial support for childcare to employees during the pandemic and was looking to formalize more flexible practices in light of increased home working. That said, she warned, companies must make sure women don’t inadvertently hurt their careers by working from home more than men long-term. The Hindu BusinessLine

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