George Scangos was appointed on February 26, 2020, by BIO, biotech’s largest industry trade group, to lead the battle against COVID-19 – the highly contagious, deadly viral disease declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). His appointment coincided with Vice President Pence’s acceptance as Chair of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force.
Scangos assumes this role amidst an urgent need to address the swiftly spreading pandemic that has already infected more than 2.6 million people across the globe.
Scangos will help BIO in its efforts to accelerate therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics as scientists, public health experts, and policy makers seek to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus.
Scangos is President and CEO of Vir Biotechnology, a clinical-state immunology company based in San Francisco, California. He was previously CEO of Biogen Inc., CEO of Exelixis Inc. and President of Bayer Biotechnology.
Scangos discussed his new role at BIO and shared thoughtful perspectives regarding the challenges and opportunities faced today with Rich Soll, Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives and Head of WuXi AppTec’s Boston office, along with members of the WuXi AppTec’s Content Division.
WuXi AppTec: Your new role is a huge undertaking. Can you tell us how you were approached about it and why you decided to take it on?
George Scangos: BIO, for which I serve as a board member, was monitoring the rapidly spreading deadly virus attack (later named COVID-19) caused by a novel coronavirus (later called SARS-CoV-2) that the WHO decreed on January 30, 2020, to be “A Public Health Emergency of International Concern” after its initial detection in December 2019.
BIO wanted to facilitate biotech’s efforts to find better diagnostics and to develop vaccines (prevention) and therapies (treatments) because none existed.
I told BIO, they knew what VIR was doing in that regard, that we would like to be involved in BIO’s efforts. Then, I was asked by Jeremy Levin, Chairman of the BIO Board, if I would lead the efforts. I knew it would be an enormous undertaking, but I also think it is very important.
WuXi AppTec: It’s still early in your tenure, but can you share more details about your responsibilities?
George Scangos: Well, I don’t ever recall a pandemic like this in my lifetime that has had such a profound global impact. Furthermore, we were handicapped in our ability to prevent or fight the virus, because we had nothing to battle it with; no diagnostic, no vaccine to prevent infection, and no therapies for treatment.
So I see my responsibilities really are to work with the BIO staff and the other members of the Board to accomplish our objectives. The first is to make it easier for members of BIO to bring forward potential treatments, cures, vaccines, and diagnostics. Second is to promote collaboration around technologies, skill sets and people. Third is to inform member companies in BIO of what the regulatory agencies are thinking, and what the government funding opportunities might be. Fourth is to promote the positive impact that our efforts are producing.
WuXi AppTec: Through its leadership and member companies, BIO’s resources include some of the top scientists and academics in the industry. How does BIO leverage this knowledge base in its approach to such an enormous public health emergency from your perspective?
George Scangos: BIO is doing a number of things but I will cite three. One, BIO organized a virtual meeting with government officials and BIO members to have a two-way dialog on what is needed and what companies have to offer. Two, a bulletin board to facilitate collaboration, and three, most pre-commercial biotech companies lack extra cash, so BIO helps in seeking appropriate funding.
WuXi AppTec: Biopharma and biotech companies in particular have been highly engaged in the coordinated response to COVID-19. What in your mind has been notable and important regarding developments in recent months?
George Scangos: Perhaps the two most notable would be how they have responded to a lack of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for healthcare workers on the frontlines, testing reagents and materials. The second is the dramatic increase in the number of big pharma and biotech companies working together on this specific problem, compared to the coronavirus diseases SARS and MERS.
WuXi AppTec: Why such an interest in light of the shift away from infectious disease by Big Pharma?
George Scangos: There was enthusiasm to do something for SARS and MERS but both were contained. SARS infected less than 10,000 people around the world but it could be millions of cases of COVID-19 by the time this is over.
This should have been a wakeup call that there could be a coronavirus pandemic. And so, as this became clear in January that this was likely to be a huge epidemic, potentially a pandemic, a few companies started working. We at Vir already had been working on coronaviruses, so we had a running start.
I think among the pharma companies there has been some efforts, but not all the pharma companies have expertise in infectious disease. Of those that do, it is hard for larger companies to simply shift on a dime in many cases.
As this disease progresses, it increasingly seems that it will become endemic and not just be a single epidemic this year. It could be with us for a while, I am sure there will be more efforts. Currently there are lots of efforts around various approaches to treatment and prevention.
WuXi AppTec: Right. Actually, what is also interesting is the level of collaborations amongst these companies. It’s gone up significantly. For example, Vir aligned with Alnylam for its cutting-edge technology in drug delivery of short interfering RNA (siRNA) and with GSK on a multi-faceted effort to develop antibodies, therapeutics and vaccines.
George Scangos: Right. There have been several announcements of companies joining together to understand and tackle the threat of COVID-19. So, the question is, what role does collaboration among companies and industries play in addressing the outbreak and protecting patients? For one thing, it is not business as usual. This is a pandemic, and people are dying, and they are dying now. More will die in the future. The sooner we can get something that actually reduces the disease or eliminates it, the better off the world will be.
So we’ve put aside many of the normal constraints to push something quickly during this perilous period. We’ve just said, as have others, let’s start working together during this tough period while constraining matters are dealt with. And it seems to be working. I have to give companies a lot of credit because it is not clear if there will be financial returns– we’re spending money and diverting resources but it is the right thing to do.
Most people I know who work in these industries are doing so because they are motivated by bringing medicines forward, which helps make patients better and saves lives.
WuXi AppTec: This requires sustainability.
George Scangos: It’s got to be sustainable at the end of the day but there are many scientific challenges with respect to this virus. For vaccines, will it be like measles, smallpox, etc.? Which work very well or will it be like the flu, which works only some of the time? We can’t predict that.
One challenge with antibodies is that you have to make sure that the antibodies have a broad enough range and that the particular portion of the virus they interact with doesn’t really change much over time. So it’s difficult for the virus to become resistant.
Small molecules have their challenges too because they need to be efficacious without toxicity.
WuXi AppTec: Any other thoughts on COVID-19?
George Scangos: Take social distancing seriously. You need to protect yourself as well as others and keep yourself from being infected. We need to slow down the spread of the virus so that we do not overwhelm our healthcare system.