In the race to detect, treat and cure the deadly novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, there’s no time for inefficiency or delay. With nearly 1,700 employees across Canada, the Roche family leveraged the knowledge and insights of our Diagnostics and Pharma divisions to address the local challenges that arose from this global crisis. From partnering with diverse stakeholders to help meet testing demand, investigating treatment options within our current portfolio, to kick-starting a funding program for innovative ideas to address the challenges of this pandemic, our organization has come together like never before.
Under exceptional circumstances, our priority is to ensure our patients continue to receive the treatment and care they need, while responding to the quickly evolving pandemic and the challenges that entails.
In an interview, Roche Canada leaders, Ronnie Miller, President & CEO Roche Pharma Canada, and Andrew Plank, President & General Manager Roche Diagnostics Canada, share their insights and the learnings that will shape not only our organization, but hopefully how the public and private sector can work together to address public-health challenges in the future.
We’ve seen industry as well as the public and private sector collaborating to find solutions as quickly as possible - both within Canada as well as around the world. Moving forward, what opportunities do you see as a result of these collaborations?
Ronnie: It’s more important than ever to leverage the knowledge and resources in our collective fight against COVID-19. Healthcare systems have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, resulting in a variety of issues and problems affecting the daily lives of Canadians. Some challenges include health system capacity and managing remote and rural populations, along with less direct yet also important challenges such as maintaining productivity while distancing. One initiative we are extremely proud of is the Roche Canada COVID-19 Innovation Challenge - a funding program to support our community in bringing forward innovative ideas to address some of the biggest challenges and issues of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After receiving more than 800 submissions over a 2-week period, we’ve committed $900,000 to help develop and implement 11 unique and innovative solutions. One of the winning entries looks at testing climate conditions on COVID-19 transmission - through the air and on various surfaces - through an aerosol chamber designed by a team of virologists and engineers. Another project is using real-time artificial intelligence (AI) technology to track, monitor, and predict COVID-19 symptoms among high-risk seniors in Montreal and Toronto. These are just a few of the promising projects we’re thrilled to support through this challenge.
Andrew: There’s been tremendous collaboration with federal and provincial governments to supply and achieve testing capacity for patients. New innovative, quality, sensitive and specific testing solutions have been integrated quickly in various labs across the country to help our healthcare system and patient demand. We’ve seen other collaborations in the healthcare ecosystem with key players such as trade organizations like Medtech Canada, where members worked on projects to lead the COVID-19 response or ScaleAI, who helps bring to life some innovative artificial intelligence projects like Roche’s platform for the optimization of the distribution of diagnostic tests for COVID-19 in Canada. Overall, the pandemic has reinforced the value of diagnostics in the eyes of governments and the general public.
Can you comment further on the collaboration between the public and private sector and some potential learnings or practices that you believe we need to continue post-pandemic?
Andrew: We see public and private sector collaboration increasing due to the pandemic response; we need each other to meet public health needs and we see complimentary resources across the public/private sector such as infrastructure, capabilities, relationships, scale, access, speed, and capacity for testing.
The diagnostics industry has been able to develop high quality tests in record time to test for SARS-CoV-2 and healthcare authorities like Health Canada have been agile and responded rapidly to make great innovative solutions available for HCP and patients.
What do we need to do to prepare for a potential second wave, given there are many unknowns and the risks that entails?
Ronnie: COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of research to planning and preparedness in Canada’s healthcare system. One initiative currently underway through Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) is the establishment of a post-Covid academic Chair. The creation of a Research Chair dedicated to pandemic preparedness and the role of the healthcare sector in sustaining and growing our economy, will contribute to helping Canada potentially prepare for future pandemics and ensure our country is well-prepared to effectively respond and recover. This is a great example of the vital contribution our industry makes to protecting the health and well-being of Canadians as well as to our economy.
Andrew: We need to continue to follow Canadian public health recommendations for all citizens, ensure quality testing and adequate supply, understand and establish the contribution and value antibody testing may play in the return to work scenario.
SARS-CoV-2 testing is a crucial first step in the battle against COVID-19, to detect if someone is actively infected with the virus. The next step is COVID-19 antibody testing, which detects immune response and potential immunity of the general population. This test could help identify people who have been infected by the virus but did not display symptoms, could support priority screening of high-risk groups, such as healthcare workers who might already have developed a certain level of immunity and can continue serving and/or return to work.
A global challenge like COVID-19 has not been seen in recent history and therefore requires a modern approach to combat it. What has been our novel approach and what has it taught you about yourself and our organization?
Ronnie: I’m very proud of how Roche has responded to this crisis. Diagnostics has played a vital role in detection and will be pivotal in getting people back to work and re-stimulate the economy. We are also conducting studies on some of our pharmaceutical portfolio in the treatment of severe COVID-19 patients. Roche has been robust, responsive, fast and socially responsible and it reminds all of us of the significance that research and development means to the modern world, now and in the future.
Andrew: This pandemic is the embodiment of the complex, uncertain and volatile world we’ve always talked about, truly lived out on a global scale. I could not be more proud of our people, and humbled by the impact Roche Canada has made for all Canadians during this pandemic. I’ve learned that people need to see vulnerability and authenticity from leaders when the world is turned upside down and that solidarity of purpose, caring connection, and self-awareness are critically important for all of us during a pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis that is affecting millions of people, but it is not the first health crisis we face. We have proudly been part of addressing many healthcare challenges in the past and this time will not be the exception. Thanks to the trust that Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and provincial public labs have placed in Roche, we are tirelessly working together to reduce the level of pandemic impact in Canada.
In these exceptional times, we stand together, along with governments, healthcare providers and all those working to overcome this pandemic.