Launched in 2013 after breaking away from Abbott, AbbVie has grown into a multinational, research-driven biopharmaceutical company with 30,000 employees worldwide including scientists, researchers, manufacturing specialists and regulatory experts. Over the years AbbVie has established Greece as regional hub in clinical research, targeting specific, difficult-to-cure diseases. General Manager Paschalis Apostolidis discusses why Greece is a good place to conduct their cutting-edge research, and what the government needs to do to further encourage lifesaving R&D
What is the rationale behind your vote of confidence in Greece during the years of the crisis?
Greece is currently at a historical crossroads. Even though the economy has suffered a decade of deep crisis, the ingredients to shape a strong, innovative, leading pharmaceutical sector are still there. It is worth mentioning that according to the Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017, by the World Economic Forum, Greece ranks 10th worldwide for “Availability of Scientists & Engineers,” and this is something that is reflected through one of the most significant investments of Greece during the last two decades. Believing in the country’s potential, our vote of confidence in Greece was, and still is, a strategic choice aimed at enhancing our presence and investments in the domestic market.
Can you tell us about your company’s competitive presence locally and internationally?
Within this context, we developed our Site Management and Monitoring Operations Hub in Athens, which is now responsible for a cluster of 14 countries from Europe, Middle East and Africa. This makes AbbVie the only multinational pharmaceutical company in Greece to do so, and at the same time we are in second place for active clinical trials conducted in the country. Currently our clinical and medical departments support more than 40 direct jobs for doctors, chemists, biochemists, pharmacists and biologists through an annual total direct R&D investment of more than €6 million. We hope that the further development of the clinical trials landscape in Greece will help us to further expand our footprint during the coming years.
At the 4th Delphi Forum you stated “pharmaceutical innovation is the future at the present moment.” Why is Greece a good place to conduct innovative research?
There is no doubt that new, innovative medicines are on the forefront of our efforts to secure a healthier and longer life for patients around the globe. Our commitment in innovation and science is reflected in our portfolio, which contains therapies in 32 diseases, while we continue to invest in the discovery and development of new medicines.
Within this context, Greece has significant advantages for conducting clinical trials, both in terms of skills and infrastructure. Although there is still an urgent need for accelerating structural reforms – especially regarding legislation for approval timelines and bureaucracy – the government’s recent initiative to offset clinical trials investments with clawback payments (mandatory paybacks to the state by the pharmaceutical industry) is an incentive of significant importance, which can play a crucial role towards the country’s improved competitiveness.
How are you navigating the challenges of the Greek market regarding access to innovation?
There is no reason to develop new medicines if patients have no access to them. In 2018 Greece established a domestic Health Technology Assessment process and, as with every new and complicated process, delays in market access were anticipated. However, a two-year delay, which is now the case for Greece, is raising significant barriers to innovation and immediate action should be taken in order to address this problem with solutions based on the value of new innovative medicines both for the patients as well as for the economy.
AbbVie was one of the first multinational pharmaceutical companies to become a member of the Hellenic Biocluster (HBIO). How relevant are the synergies between scientists and businesses, and what is your rationale for entering different collaborations and partnerships?
Collaboration towards a common cause is not only imperative; it is part of our mentality. Bringing scientists together, joining forces, combining knowledge, expertise and talent, is fundamental when you want to be a leader in pharmaceutical innovation.
If we want to make Greece a pharmaceutical R&D regional leader in southeastern Europe, if we want to reverse the “brain drain” phenomenon that has pushed thousands of young scientists abroad, then the research and development community of our country has to partner and collaborate, recognizing that cooperation is a win-win situation in itself. HBIO is a cluster that incorporates all these principles and as a result we are more than happy to participate.
Sustainable development and social responsibility are also key pillars for AbbVie. What initiatives and investments best reflect this philosophy?
Our fundamental scope is at the core of society. We are working to improve public health through breakthrough therapies for some of the most serious diseases of our times. We are collaborating with health authorities to support the sustainability of the Greek healthcare system. We are investing in clinical trials to support the economy and the labor market, as well as to increase the level of clinical practice.
We are proud of our footprint and of the recognition we are getting from third-party stakeholders from various business sectors. AbbVie in Greece has been recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the “Most Admired Companies” for many years in a row, through a very demanding voting process where 1,700 C-suite executives from 350 companies, across all sectors, rate our performance against several criteria, from innovation to corporate social responsibility.
Moreover, we are proud that AbbVie was rewarded with the second spot on the “Best Workplaces” list for 2019, and remains the only company in Greece, across all sectors, that has ranked in the Top 3 of the list for five straight years. Creating a friendly workplace, both in terms of infrastructure and benefits for our employees, trying to prove in practice our deep respect and appreciation for their efforts, has always been our main goal, as we strongly believe that our most important asset is our people.
How do you assess the company’s performance and what are some of AbbVie’s milestones?
AbbVie’s approach focuses on discovering, developing and delivering medicines where we have proven expertise and can bring greater benefits to patients, leveraging more than 125 years of innovation. Our scientists have discovered and developed one of the first drugs to treat HIV infection, changing the outlook for many patients affected by the disease. Our work in immunology has benefited patients with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune diseases. Our medicines for Hepatitis C can eradicate the virus, which is one of the most important scientific achievements of our times.
Looking ahead, what is the strategic direction in which you plan to take the company?
Science and innovation were and remain cornerstones of our company, and we are studying compounds that have the potential to treat more than 1.5 billion people globally. To be more specific, more than 200 oncology clinical trials are in place for 20 different types of cancers, which could be translated into 51 potential new medicines or new indications for existing medicines.
The Greek pharmaceutical budget was restricted at €1.9 billion during 2015-2018. Despite the harsh conditions, most multinationals have stayed in Greece. How has the sector endured the years of the crisis?
It is an indisputable fact that the pharmaceutical industry is still facing an extreme 62% cut in public pharmaceutical expenditure since the beginning of the crisis. Moreover, Greece already has the lowest public pharmaceutical expenditure per capita, nearly 50% of the European average, as well as significant delays in market access. This is a combination that reinforces uncertainty and hinders investment decisions.
Despite this turbulence, pharmaceutical companies not only have shown remarkable resilience, but also secured – at their own cost via extreme rebates and clawback – that patients will have unobstructed access to pharmaceutical innovation and that the healthcare system will not collapse.
As a result, the main lesson of the crisis is that every actor has a responsibility for the healthcare system’s sustainability. Now is the time to fix what was broken during these years in order to avoid further decisions for compulsory disinvestment. Furthermore, it is also a chance to rethink our priorities as a society. It is time to discuss the importance of public health not only to our well being, but also as a fundamental cornerstone of the global economy.
Greece is embarking on a path of growth and development. How do you evaluate AbbVie’s direct and indirect contribution to Greece’s socio-economic development in this new era?
Despite the difficulties, we still believe in the prospects of the Greek pharmaceutical sector and we share the government’s vision to establish Greece as a regional R&D leader in South East Europe.
Our commitment to support the Greek economy and society remains solid and is reflected in our contribution to socioeconomic development. According to a study conducted by the WifOR Institute, including spillover effects, AbbVie contributed more than €73 million of Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2018, while we supported more than 630 direct, indirect and induced jobs. Along these lines, 10.4% of our direct GVA contribution is generated through R&D activities, emphasizing our strong commitment to research and development. And with a total R&D intensity of 12.1% (internal and external R&D expenditures per GVA) we surpassed the EU’s target rate of 3% for the year 2020 by far.
Above all, we are using our expertise and passion to spread the message that the potential of this country is huge. Out of the €34 billion that are invested annually in Europe for clinical trials, only €42 million are currently invested in Greece, which is 0.1% of the total amount. With the National Plan for Clinical Trials that the new government recently announced, we could set a National Goal to reach the per capita EU average for clinical trials investment. This could increase the annual invested amount from €42 to €520 million, which translates into a €1.1 billion increase in GDP, a €270 million increase in tax revenues and 23,000 new jobs.
What are your thoughts on the competitiveness of Greece’s pharmaceutical sector and what initiatives should Greece undertake to further strengthen the industry and the healthcare system?
I strongly believe that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most valuable assets of the Greek economy. In my opinion, in order to further increase our contribution to the improvement of public health, as well as to the growth of the economy, a three-step approach should be the backbone of a long-term strategy for the pharmaceutical sector.
First, Greece should increase the amount of clinical trial investments in order to ensure that Greek patients have early access to innovative medicines under development as well as to boost the economy and the labor market. Second, a Horizon Scanning process should be established in order to proactively calculate the financial burden of these new innovative therapies when they become commercially available. Third, the existing Health Technology Assessment process should become functional, based on the value of medicines and accompanied by a special “Innovation Fund” dedicated to securing the necessary financial resources for new innovative medicines for a specific period. This would be something like a “smart filter” to identify a fair reimbursement price for every new innovative medicine, while giving health authorities the time to re-frame the public pharmaceutical budget. This approach can establish Greece as an innovation-friendly market without creating an unnecessary financial burden on patients, the government or the local pharmaceutical industry.