Bristol Myers CEO Caforio on coronavirus R&D: Let's make it a 'new standard for collaboration'

Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Giovanni Caforio debuts new brand
Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Giovanni Caforio says industry collaborations can speed up the development of new drugs to treat heart disease, cancer and other common diseases. (Robert Bruschini/Bristol Myers Squibb)

Amid a mad rush in the pharmaceutical industry to find remedies and vaccines to end the COVID-19 pandemic, Bristol Myers Squibb has been rather quiet, focusing instead on its integration of Celgene, which it acquired last year for $74 billion.  

But Bristol CEO Giovanni Caforio has been watching Big Pharma’s coronavirus response play out—and now he has a message he wants his peers in the industry to take to heart.

“As I’ve watched institutions mobilize behind a singular mission for the greater good, it gives me great hope that we are setting a new standard for collaboration to innovate and make scientific progress,” he wrote in an editorial published by Fortune.

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Caforio pointed to several examples of how collaborations between pharmaceutical companies are speeding up development of potential COVID-19 solutions. For example, Sanofi is working with GlaxoSmithKline on a vaccine that will combine the French pharma giant’s recombinant DNA technology with GSK’s adjuvant expertise. Such collaborations have yielded 228 COVID-19 drug candidates and another 160 possible vaccines, Caforio wrote.

RELATED: Sanofi, GSK tie up for COVID-19 vaccine work with eyes on possible 2021 rollout

The same level of collaboration that the coronavirus has sparked could make a significant impact on the effort to address other diseases with unprecedented speed, Caforio argued: “Imagine moving at the pace we are today on other pressing public health issues like heart disease and cancer, the top two killers in America.”

Caforio offered an example from BMS itself: The company is working with both Pfizer and wearable sensor maker Fitbit to identify and support patients who face an increased risk of atrial fibrillation—a major cause of stroke. Fitbit will develop afib-detection software and submit it to the FDA for approval.

If the agency green-lights the technology, Fitbit will incorporate it into its wearable products. It will then provide educational information to Fitbit users who are alerted to heart-rhythm abnormalities, with the guidance of the BMS-Pfizer Alliance, a tie-up the companies formed to drive awareness of afib and other cardiovascular conditions.

Although BMS may appear to be watching from the sidelines of the COVID-19 gold rush, the company has been a passive beneficiary of it, thanks to its blood thinner Eliquis. When physicians started reporting earlier this year that using blood thinners could prevent strokes and other clotting-related conditions in seriously ill COVID-19 patients, demand for the BMS drug went through the roof, pushing sales of Eliquis up 37% in the first quarter.

RELATED: Bristol Myers Squibb's blood thinner Eliquis soars on COVID-19 demand, but Opdivo could suffer: execs

Now BMS is focusing on making a success of one of the assets it picked up in the Celgene acquisition: Zeposia (ozanimod) to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis. The drug was approved in late March, but BMS delayed its launch because of the pandemic. The company introduced the product last week at a price of $86,000 a year—just below the cost of Novartis’ rival drug Mayzent.

In his commentary, Caforio lauded the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed, which is providing federal funding to selected COVID-19 vaccine developers—reportedly AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna—in the hopes of getting 100 million doses ready by November. It’s “a project of scale and speed never seen in the life sciences industry,” he said.

Perhaps, but Warp Speed is also generating plenty of controversy that Caforio didn’t address. The head of the program, former GSK executive Moncef Slaoui, was forced to sell $12.4 million of Moderna stock after he came under fire for having a conflict of interest, for example. Slaoui was scheduled to headline this week’s BIO International Convention, in what would have been his first public comments since his Warp Speed appointment, but he pulled out at the last minute.

Then there are the concerns that the pressure for a quick vaccine is favoring players with new, unproven technologies, rather than older vaccine platforms that have already been proven safe and effective. But in Caforio's estimation, the value in the rapid response to COVID-19 is not just speed alone but the bringing together of resources and an array of skill sets to tackle an unmet medical need, he wrote.

“We must continue to approach clinical research with the level of collaboration we have witnessed in the past few months,” he concluded. “That would be a much-needed silver lining of this devastating pandemic.”

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