Read the Conversation

EF: Tell us about the Company Performance?

BB: Abbott is a global healthcare leader that helps people live more fully at all stages of life. We have leading businesses and products in medical devices, diagnostics, nutritionals and branded generic medicines, generating sales of $34 billion in 2020. Abbott is 130 years old and we have 109,000 employees serving people in in 160 countries. More than half of our annual revenue is from countries outside of the U.S. Most recently, Fortune magazine ranked Abbott as one of its “Top 50 Most Admired Companies.”

Africa is an important region for all of Abbott’s businesses. We’ve had operations in South Africa since 1940. Today, our Africa offices are located in South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

At the outset of the pandemic, we knew that testing was going to be critical in helping slow the spread of the virus and getting people back to living a bit more normally. We invested hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D to develop tests and manufacture them at scale. Since 2020, Abbott has developed and launched 12 different tests to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its antibodies. We’ve delivered more than 400 million COVID-19 tests globally.

We offer a wide range of tests, from high-throughput laboratory-based systems to point-of-care rapid tests, that allow us to expand access to testing across centralized and decentralized settings. Reference laboratories, regional and district hospitals and community clinics are all healthcare settings in which Abbott tests are being used to prevent and control spread of COVID-19. 

More recently, non-traditional settings such as airports, pharmacies, workplaces, schools and universities have begun to use rapid testing to help reopen their economies and facilitate people returning to work, school, travel and other activities of daily life. And throughout the pandemic, we continue to provide other products for non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and chronic heart disease, to help people live healthy lives.

EF: What were the Lessons Learned from the Pandemic?

BB: At Abbott, we knew that in order to move quickly, we needed to shift how we were working. We only considered what had to be true to meet the timeline and discard everything else. We tore down internal silos and relied on talent from across the company to come together to develop, test, and manufacture our numerous diagnostic tools. As a result, we have emerged with a new normal of how to operate. This focus, hyper-collaboration and drive to do everything possible is something that should carry over in how we think about addressing other health challenges. 

We also knew there would never be one individual test that would work in all situations, that there wouldn’t be a silver bullet in testing, which is why we committed ourselves to developing a suite of diagnostic tools to combat COVID-19. We also know that there isn’t a silver bullet for ending this pandemic. Testing, mask-wearing, social distancing, treatments and ultimately widespread access to vaccines are all needed to beat this disease and we need to use these tools as part of a layered approach.

When developing tests like Abbott’s Panbio rapid antigen test, we threw out the notion that you can’t have a test that is all three things: affordable, scalable and reliable. We proved that it is possible in diagnostic testing and that we need to find other ways to bring reliable, affordable and scalable health options to people everywhere.

Finally, the pandemic has taught us all that countries – and not just in Africa– need to invest more in their healthcare infrastructure. While it’s critical to have tests and treatments available, it’s all for naught if health systems can’t efficiently deliver them to communities. Also, heath equity is really important. We need to ensure that all life-saving tools get to everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable because their health is equally important and impacts us all.  That’s why we’ve committed to pricing our Panbio antigen tests affordably, so that payors, governments, and global funders, in all markets, can afford them for their people. 

EF: How do you envision the Future of Healthcare?

BB: We see three key trends on the rise in healthcare: democratization, decentralization and digitalization. These trends are universal but occurring at varying speeds in regions around the world.

Access to healthcare is increasing and getting to more people regardless of where they live and their income level. Healthcare is also becoming increasingly decentralized with routine services moving away from centralized locations and closer to people in their communities. 

A great example of this is an initiative that Abbott is supporting in Rwanda. The government of Rwanda, a country in which more than 80% of the people live in rural areas, has a vision that no Rwandan should have to walk more than 30 minutes to access quality primary healthcare. In 2019, the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with a local NGO (the Society for Family Health Rwanda) and Abbott built eight second-generation health posts that bring primary care to local communities. As a result of this initiative, more people have gone to the new health posts for general check-ups, antenatal care, wound care, family planning and counseling and other basic services that previously they might have had to walk three hours to access. In early 2021, the U.S. Department of State honored Abbott with its annual Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) in the innovation category for capacity building to help strengthen Rwanda’s healthcare services for the long-term.

Taking decentralization even further, we see self-testing on the rise. HIV self-tests have been available in Africa for a while. COVID-19 self-testing is rapidly becoming available. 

Finally, we’re seeing innovations in digital technologies becoming integrated into healthcare. Nearly everyone today has a smartphone or a cellphone. Beyond using apps to shop, listen to music and chat with friends, health apps are now available for people to monitor their health and get test results from their healthcare provider. In Africa, we offer a health data surveillance app called Sympheos that lets healthcare workers send data back from our rapid diagnostic tests to ministries of health so they can know if there is a COVID-19 or malaria outbreak. Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre continuous glucose monitoring system, together with its digital health tools, enable people living with diabetes to efficiently monitor their glucose levels through their mobile devices and voluntarily provide seamless access to this data to their caregivers and treating doctors 

 EF: What advise do you have in regards to Management and Leadership?

BB: Good management and leadership are critical to a company’s success. In my professional career, I’ve benefited from mentors who guided me and facilitated access to opportunities to work with other people and learn from them. At Abbott, we are committed to building a diverse workplace and offering everyone equal opportunities for development and success.

Recruiting and developing great talents is an integral part of my responsibilities. So is instilling a culture conducive to high performance. Leading by example requires consistency and discipline to rally a whole team behind your vision and attain the goals we have set out to achieve. Therefore, caring for one another and for the people we serve around the world is a common trait across our team.

EF: Any final message to share? 

BB: Abbott has stood up to the challenge of the pandemic – and we’re not done yet because the virus has not run its course and vaccines are going to take a while to reach many people in the region and globally. We need to stay vigilant and test for infections and understand more about this virus which will probably continue to exist and mutate even after vaccination.

Abbott’s new Pandemic Defense Coalition is dedicated to the early detection of, and rapid response to, future pandemic threats. The program expands upon the viral surveillance and discovery work that Abbott has performed over the last three decades through a network of dozens of partners in strategic geographic locations

It’s truly an exciting time to be in diagnostics and healthcare. A time of incredible innovation at breakneck speed, and the opportunity to have an immediate and massive impact on health outcomes around the world. 

If and when this kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes to your industry and your company, take a deep breath, don’t let traditional thinking be an obstacle, break down the silos and apply all the great minds and resources you have to stand up to the challenge. It’s amazing, liberating, fulfilling – and yes, exhausting – at what can be accomplished when we work together.

July 2021
South Africa