Read the Conversation

EF: What was your and GSK’s role during the pandemic?

EK: I was involved in the response in two main ways as the Country Head for GSK and as a workstream lead in B4SA.

GSK’s global response to the pandemic has been in 2 main areas. Firstly, within vaccine development we have established 4 partnerships where we share our adjuvant technology. The two closest to market are with Sanofi and Medicago, we have recently received positive phase 2 data for the Sanofi partnership and expect to have registration by the end of 2021. In addition to these to these partnerships GSK is collaborating with CureVac to develop mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 with the potential to address multiple emerging variants. 

Secondly GSK has invested in 2 monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID: sotrovimab, for the treatment of high-risk patients who have contracted the Covid-19 virus and Otilimab for adult patients who are hospitalised with COVID-19 related pulmonary disease  

Personally, I became involved in the Business for South Africa (B4SA) response to the pandemic in March 2020. Just as the first patients were being identified with COVID-19 in SA, the members of several trade associations, hospitals, labs and pharmacies came together to look at how business could support the SA government. The response was incredible, with more than a hundred volunteers working round the clock to support the country. These volunteers were CEO’s, technical experts and heads of functions  of large business in SA and were involved in various workstreams focused on key areas such as economy and health. My role was within the Health Workstream where I led the PPE and medical equipment procurement for South Africa’s public health system. In my workstream we focused on securing high quality, low cost PPE both from overseas and within South Africa. We partnered with major donors such as the Solidarity Fund, Naspers and the Motsepe Foundation and procured approximately 2bn Zar of PPE, all of which was donated to the public health system. Multiple companies provided volunteers and resources such as RMB, PWC, Deloitte, AB Inbev and Discovery to name just a few. 

EF: What have been the lessons learned after Managing a company like GSK through the Covid-19?

EK: One major learning in GSK is the need for a differentiated approach, there could not be a one size fits all response globally. This is where we developed a ‘globally guided, locally led approach’ which gave full autonomy to the country head and their  management teams across the world to manage their response, their people and their business the best way possible within their local circumstances. A great positive from this was our speed and agility, we removed all the red tape to decision making and were able to move so much faster than ever before. 

A great learning is around decentralization and on how much can be done in a short space of time if you empower local teams and trust them to do the right thing. 

Decisions had to be made fast and there was no time to develop new policies and handbooks, instead a value-based decision-making process was used. For me the focus was always our people and their safety first, their families and then ensuring continued access to our products and the protection of our business.

EF: Based on your “locally-led, globally guided” principle, how did you attract resources to South Africa to lead?

EK: We did not require additional resources to manage our response locally. The focus was on decision making and on how you support your people, how you manage the closing and opening the offices, opening sites, managing outbreaks. It was all about working with our people and their safety and ensuring business continuity during the pandemic.

EF: Could you elaborate on the footprint that GSK has in SA?

EK: In South Africa, GSK has two legal entities: one covers the Pharma, Vaccines and ViiV (HIV) business and the other covers that Consumer business which focuses on over the counter products such as Grandpa and Pandol. The consumer business has a manufacturing plant in Cape Town. 

 EF: Did you see a shift in your portfolio during this past year because of the pandemic?

EK: During the pandemic, we saw a shift in the performance of our portfolio. The anti-infectives and vaccines portfolio were the most negatively impacted. There was a very limited cold and flu season last year because of the level 5 lockdown, which meant a significant contraction in the anti-infective market. On the vaccines side, one of the negative side effects of the lockdown was that many people stopped taking their babies and children for vaccinations. So, in terms of the coverage rates in SA nationally, we were above 80% prior to Covid, however during the lockdown, that dropped to 60% and as low as 40% in some of the more hard-hit provinces. This is a major public health challenge and meant that many babies did not get the vaccinations they need. 

EF: How can we increase the awareness on the importance of vaccinations on children? 

EK: Education is key, to make sure parents and caregivers are clear on the importance of vaccination as well as the consequences of not being vaccinated. In addition, communication on where to get vaccinated is important, many clinics have closed or been repurposed during Covid-19 leaving people unsure on where and when to go for vaccines. Education on this is vital. 

GSK was delighted to have the opportunity to work with the NDOH on a major vaccination coverage campaign in 2020 and 2021, focused on increasing vaccine coverage in local communities. This was done via TV, Radio, Print, billboards and social media focusing on key provinces and using local language.  

EF: What does access mean to you?

EK: To me the key drivers of access to medicines in South Africa are availability and affordability. In order to reach the majority of the SA population medicines must be available in the public health setting. 

EF: Shifting the topic to HR and future of employment, what is the new needed skill for the Pharma sector and how can you attract talents for the Pharma sector while the trend is going to the tech companies.

EK: Every industry evolves and constantly needs new skills but I think that one enduring attraction of the pharma industry is that it continues to save lives by creating new medicines and vaccines. It’s a great industry to work in if you want to make a meaningful health impact. 

Innovative pharma continues to make a difference to millions globally and we have seen significant changes in the pace of this with the pandemic, as we witnessed with the Covid-19 vaccine, which was moved vaccine manufacture from 10 years to just 9 months. This was thanks to people pushing barriers within the innovative pharma industry. And this shift has hopefully changed the public understanding of the Pharma industry and increased the willingness of key talent to see the innovative pharma industry as an area that they may want to work in.

The next few years will be that of a revolution in the Pharma industry, where we can seize the opportunity to bring more innovative products to patients, make game-changing health impacts more rapidly and increase access to healthcare to those that need it most. Therefore, the required capability is to challenge the status quo and to be resilient and able to drive that change. Another major change has been the move to digital with many more online meetings, webinars and online doctor engagements. South Africa was a very face to face market before COVID-19. This pandemic has accelerated digital forms of engagement and I hope we will continue to see more and more positive digital disruption in healthcare.

We have seen that we could reach the vaccine in 9 months, and we will expect the Pharma industry to continue this way.  Do you see a decrease in barriers in the pharma sector coming up soon? 
EK: This pandemic has challenged many norms, none more than that of vaccines manufacturing. We are seeing more entrants to the market and more collaborations, partnerships and tech transfers. I hope that this positive increase in both competition and collaboration will mean the Pharma industry can bring many more game changing medicines and vaccines to people across the world. 

Regarding your mission in 2018, what has changed since then, and where do you see the company going in 5 years?

EK: I am excited to see our portfolio continue to change and expand. Next year we are launching an exciting new product in COPD and we have some key vaccines launches over the coming 5 years which I hope to make a meaningful and positive impact for South Africa. However, some things haven’t changed. Our strategy and vision of making our products more available and more accessible in SA haven’t changed. Our need to improve access through via partnerships hasn’t changed. One major area that has changes is how our workforce will work, we will not return to 5-day office based model, our employees are demanding more flexibility and the ability to choose how and where they work and we have just seen in real time that it works.


EF What did you learn during this process in SA?

EK: That we can achieve incredible things when business works in partnership with the government with a clear common goal. In a meeting in March 2020 with key SA business and healthcare stakeholder there was a realization that the pandemic was coming to South Africa and that the only way that we were going to effectively fight it was if the private and public sector worked closely together. All the major business associations from Pharma to Banking came together to support the government in their response. It was an incredible moment for South Africa. We need to learn from this, break down the barriers between the public and private sector and seek collaboration on more common goals. 

EF: A few years down the road, when you look back on these last couple of years -the Covid years- what would you like your 2020/2021 tenure to be remembered for?

EK: I hope I will be remembered as someone who stood up and fought to help SA in the pandemic, someone who helped push the barriers and bring positive change, someone who always put the needs of her team and employees first and led the GSK business with care and respect.

August 2021
South Africa