Innovation, Collaboration and Purpose: Three Lessons from the Pharmaceutical Industry to Strengthen the Global Health System

By Jane Nelson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Philip Thomson, President, Global Affairs, GSK.

The pharmaceutical industry is playing a central role in the response to COVID-19. As we now look to rebuild better, what does the experience of the sector tell us about strengthening our global, national and local health systems and building preparedness and resilience for future shocks?

The last decade has seen substantial changes in how the pharmaceutical industry perceives its role in expanding access and affordability of pharmaceutical products, such as therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics, and in working with governments and civil society organizations to tackle global and community health challenges. Public opinion as well as changing stakeholder expectations, including among investors, increasingly demand that the industry benefits not only its shareholders, but also the public good; and does so in a manner that is measurable and accountable. Consequently, the notion of “purpose” is becoming more central to the strategy, operations and governance of companies within the sector.

Despite this shift, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious failures in our health systems. It has also highlighted and exacerbated the structural inequalities that impact on health outcomes – for example, of income, gender and race. Across the world, health systems must be strengthened at national, state and local levels, and the sheer scale of the challenge facing us can be, at times, overwhelming to behold.

Fortunately, every day there are inspiring practical examples of companies and business leaders who are making measurable public commitments and working to find concrete solutions, in collaboration with the non-profit sector and governments. The pharmaceutical industry has naturally been at the centre of the global response to COVID-19, with an immediate focus on adapting or developing diagnostics for testing and finding therapeutic interventions and vaccinations.

Equally important, however, is whether the international community will learn the long-term health lessons of the pandemic. Despite several close calls and warnings that a pandemic was likely, as a global community we did not adequately prepare for such an eventuality, nor did we put sufficient prevention, response or resilience strategies in place. Our global and in many cases, national and local health systems were simply not ready. Will we now deliver the necessary measures and investments to prepare us for future shocks?

It is a hard reality that we have some tough, challenging years ahead of us as the humanitarian, economic and governance crises associated with the pandemic continue to unfold. However, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Within the pharmaceutical sector, there is a renewed spirit of collaboration, an urgency of dialogue and innovation, and a new generation of CEOs who understand their organisation’s role in wider society.  Likewise, we find that many officials in the public sector are looking to translate the lessons of COVID-19 into more equitable and inclusive policies, stimulus packages and practical action.

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The experience of GSK and its peers in the pharmaceutical industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic indicates three areas that will be fundamental to reimagining our global health systems for the better:


As a company, GSK has committed to three strategic priorities: innovation, performance and

trust, and innovation sits at the core of GSK’s sense of purpose.

Such innovation will be essential in getting us through the COVID-19 crisis, and the industry is innovating at unprecedented speed to develop new products, technologies, data sharing platforms and financing mechanisms in the search for effective testing, therapeutics and vaccines.

Although there are exciting developments on new technologies and products, arguably some of the most important innovations are in how the industry is working with others to find solutions. The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator – established  by Wellcome, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Mastercard Impact Fund – is one example of a new platform enabling the industry to share data on pharmaceutical assets in the pipeline and on the market, to help remove barriers to drug development and scale up treatments to address the pandemic.  This initiative is a good example of innovative leadership by multi-stakeholder organisations; by companies across the industry, foundations and enlightened companies from outside the pharmaceutical sector.

A second important dynamic is the growing focus on  innovative blended or public-private financing in the health sector. One of the challenges that vaccine developers face is how to fund the enormous at-risk capital requirements of vaccine development as a private company. Particularly in the USA, UK and the EU, governments have understood that the level of financing required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic requires public sector support. Drawing on lessons from the COVID-19 response and existing platforms, such as the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and GAVI The Vaccine Alliance, blended financing models could give rise to new and innovative funding streams to tackle other global health challenges and to strengthen health systems.

Cross-Sectoral Collaboration

One important realisation from the crisis is that, whilst the corporate sector is essential in helping to find solutions to global and community health challenges, it can only go so far. The response of governments to the pandemic has been critical to determining health outcomes.

This does not, however, diminish the importance of the private sector taking action. COVID-19 has affected all of us, in some way, and has called on businesses to place people at the centre of their operations and decision-making, especially employees but also consumers, communities, and workers and business partners along global supply chains.  Building on this shared experience, we can work to develop a common understanding that people’s health and wellbeing is everyone’s business, and in everybody’s interest. The issue extends far beyond the pharmaceuticals sector, and every company has a role to play in promoting the welfare of staff, providing training and healthcare support, or funding healthcare infrastructure and frontline workers.

At the same time, the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of holistic prevention and preparedness as a public health strategy. One possibility is the establishment of a collaborative global network for screening, developing antigens, and surge manufacturing capability in preparation for future pandemics.  Furthermore, COVID-19 has given new weight to arguments in favour of universal health coverage, and it is time to double down on this ambition with cross-industry championship.

We have already seen the power of cross-industry collaboration in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which involved companies from across the consumer goods, financial, mining, energy and other sectors. Such approaches are going to be essential going forward, especially at the operational level of companies, but also in terms of national and global advocacy and resource mobilisation.   

Corporate Purpose

A collaborative and holistic approach to improving health outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable, can provide a sense of common purpose. As we move forward with stakeholder capitalism, the whole concept of people’s well-being – including physical, mental and financial health i.e. people’s lives, livelihoods and learning – will become more central to business governance. Throughout the pandemic, there have been wonderful examples of companies acting on their commitment to social purpose. Conversely, some of the businesses that have failed to demonstrate such commitment have experienced backlash from consumers and investors alike.

In recent years, more companies are articulating their social purpose but there remain sceptics who suggest  – with justification in some cases – that purpose is merely the latest marketing buzzword. A business that is truly purpose-led will ensure that their purpose drives decision-making. For example, GSK used their purpose to anchor decision-making during the pandemic, and decide how to engage and support their nearly 100,000 employees worldwide at a very difficult time.

This embedded approach to purpose – in which the Board stewards purpose, executive teams lead and are held accountable for it, and investors champion it – benefits the company as well as wider society. Purpose can create value both for the company and its stakeholders; protect value through improved risk identification and mitigation not only for the company, but also risks to people and to the environment; and define company values to inspire and motivate employees, build resilience and guide corporate culture and decision-making. Purpose provides the “reason to believe” in the value and long-term aims of the business.

These benefits help to build businesses that are responsibly delivering financial and social returns on a long-term, sustainable basis whilst also contributing to the wellbeing of employees and the wider community. Such purpose-driven companies will be better prepared to weather future systemic shocks, whether they be other pandemics, financial and economic crises or the impacts of climate change.

The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Annabel Beales in the preparation of this blog

Editor’s Note:

This blog is based on points raised in a “fireside chat” between the two authors. Register here for free access to this  video-recorded discussion and other sessions in Business Fights Poverty Online 2020. The themes of innovation, collaboration and purpose are central to the discussions taking place during the annual conference through a series of live events, peer networking and structured learning, where we explore how all sectors can work more effectively together in the continuing response to the global crisis of COVID-19, and to rebuild better for a more equitable, inclusive and environmentally sustainable world.

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