AstraZeneca’s move into vaccines, coronavirus, leadership and the future of healthcare

09 Jul 2020

AstraZeneca’s move into vaccines, coronavirus, leadership and the future of healthcare

Watch Chris Hamilton’s conversation with AstraZeneca’s UK President, Tom Keith-Roach. They discuss leadership during lockdown, the deal with Oxford to manufacture and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, and how health systems should change in light of what we have learned from the crisis.

For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted significant disruption and change to our lives. But for Tom Keith-Roach, the changes can’t be understated. Having taken on the role of UK President of AstraZeneca just a couple of weeks before COVID-19 developed into a global crisis, he has seen the life sciences giant move rapidly into the new therapeutic area of vaccines and is part of a leadership team responding at a pace which can only be described by that overused term - unprecedented. 

It was a great pleasure to speak so openly with Tom recently to discuss his experiences. We discussed not only the many leadership challenges that the pandemic has posed for businesses and their people but also the golden opportunity to innovate and reinvent. He reflected for us on what this means for senior leaders in the future, whether in the life sciences or the wider economy.

Challenge and opportunity

It is clear that all healthcare organisations, even global leaders like AstraZeneca, are viewing the COVID-19 pandemic as both a call to arms and as a platform for transformation. Our short term needs to adapt has had us reflect on how we conduct business, develop people and provide products and services to consumers. This will have very major implications for future leaders, particularly in creating organisations that have the flexibility and agility to respond to a major global crisis – something which, until a few months ago, had felt more like a theoretical question to ask in a job interview rather than a likely future scenario to prepare for.

And yet, over the course of a few days the world changed, and we all changed with it. For AstraZeneca which is now involved in the rapid development, manufacture and distribution of a COVID-10 vaccine, their

“challenge has been how to accelerate what we do, albeit working in a virtual environment. […] that has meant accelerating our contribution as part of the national effort to combat COVID-19”.

Coordination, coordination, coordination

AstraZeneca employs around 65,000 people worldwide. It isn’t a small, nimble organisation that can easily transform overnight, and yet that is effectively what they have had to do. This is thanks to, in Tom’s view, their “ability to align, coordinate and lead at great speed”. He went on to say that the ability to “act and decide fast [and to] manage complexity and uncertainty” will become the core capabilities of leaders in the future, and I am inclined to agree with him.

Collaboration is, justifiably, a much-used word in the Life Sciences. Working across organisational boundaries is something leaders in global biopharma do well, whether in the context of drug development and commercialisation partnerships, or in support of major public health initiatives. Take the firms’ current work with the University of Oxford to develop and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine. Rarely does a global biopharma company so readily commit such considerable resource to support an initiative that is all about the public good. And as Tom says, AstraZeneca is not actually a vaccines business. But despite this, it has been able to mobilise clinical development, regulatory, operational and commercial teams around the world, something Tom feels has been helpful for the business and for the industry “to challenge the conventional timelines [and] to accelerate delivery”.

Topics Covered

Better models for healthcare require visionary leadership

For businesses such as AstraZeneca, the transformation is not just about change within the many walls of their own organisation.

This is about “addressing the big questions that face our society over the next ten years: better healthcare, pandemic response, healthcare systems sustainability and resilience.”

These are all huge subjects and are undoubtedly the pillars we need to build to reduce health and societal inequalities in the longer term. It really isn’t surprising that Tom feels such a personal responsibility to take on leadership roles that impact global health systems and change society for the better - just hear what he has to say about his work leading AZ’s global Respiratory and Immunology franchise. This role, his last before becoming UK President, required an ability to think very long term about the evolving science and health needs, and to create a roadmap that gets effective therapies to the communities that need them most.

Exceptional strategic, commercial and leadership skills are the minimum requirements to pull off a role like this. But when you add the responsibility to affect real change for the lives of millions of people, today and long into the future, this is what makes leadership at this level so hugely complex and exciting.

Making the impossible, possible seems to be something some (but not all) leaders have excelled at in recent months and as Tom puts it, it’s about having “a clear fix on the horizon”, and using this crisis to reshape and rebuild for the longer term”. Marry a short term mega-crisis with the need for a seismic societal shift, then you really have something to get your teeth into!