The impact of COVID-19 has touched all our lives in profound ways. From the start I’ve been particularly focused on the science and health impacts — both because I care deeply about public health and medicine and because it’s my responsibility as Chief Scientific Officer at Vertex to understand and communicate the science that impacts our employees and the patients we serve. Last March, we assembled a cross-functional Coronavirus Management Team to lead Vertex through the pandemic. At that time and throughout the past year and a half, our highest priority has been, and continues to be, the health and well-being of Vertexians and our ability to continue delivering medicines to patients.
Our Data-Driven Approach
I’ve met with our Coronavirus Management Team nearly every day for the past 19 months to evaluate the available data and adjust our policies and procedures accordingly. Every week, we look at four categories of metrics: government orders (national, regional and local guidance in each of the ~30 locations where we operate), case trends, health infrastructure and local services (e.g., school closures and transportation availability), and Vertex operational readiness in each location.
By adhering to these principles and closely following the data that is available, we quickly adapted to a hybrid work model. As a result, while some colleagues have adapted to remote work, many of our employees have been working on-site throughout the pandemic to discover and deliver medicines for people with serious diseases. And I’m greatly appreciative of their dedication and commitment.
The Power of Precision Medicine
A question I hear a lot is, “How were multiple vaccines able to be developed so quickly?” My answer is that this is a textbook example of the power of precision medicine, which is what we do at Vertex every day.
Medical care designed to optimize efficiency of therapeutic benefit for particular groups of patients, especially by using genetic or molecular profiling
The goal of precision medicine is to address the underlying cause of a serious disease — whether that is utilizing gene editing technology to discover ways to potentially treat a disease like sickle cell disease or, as other companies in the industry have done, developing a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The medicines we discovered and developed for cystic fibrosis are excellent examples of precision medicine in action, because they specifically target the underlying defect of a disease caused by specific mutations.
There are several factors that enabled these pharmaceutical manufacturers to rapidly develop multiple COVID-19 vaccines, whether it’s an mRNA vaccine or a more traditional approach.
1. Genomic sequencing in real time
It is genomic science that made it possible to discover the cause of the disease, SARS-CoV-2, within days. As a reference point, it took years to discover that HIV was the cause of AIDS. Thanks to technology, genomic sequencing can occur rapidly — within hours or days — resulting in the ability to respond in real time amid an evolving pandemic. And importantly, genomic sequencing technology enabled the world to differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from other viruses.
2. Therapeutic innovation
There’s a reason #ThankYouScience has been trending — it’s because of the great work of scientists and the advances in genetic engineering that we have multiple vaccines available. But it’s also important to remember that the rapid development of these vaccines is actually the result of decades of scientific innovation in basic, preclinical and clinical sciences.
3. Parallel development
Multiple different vaccines were developed in parallel to maximize the chance of success. This is another reason that the vaccines were able to be developed quickly and without cutting any corners. I love this approach. It’s exactly how we approach drug discovery and development at Vertex — moving multiple approaches move forward in parallel to enable us to reach our goal.
4. Continuous improvement
A big part of therapeutic innovation is also continuous improvement — whether that’s improving as a result of experience in the clinic or adapting to the changing nature of a virus. The technology used to develop the initial vaccines is, at the same time, being leveraged to adapt to and protect against variants of the coronavirus that are currently being identified and sequenced. The mindset of continuous improvement and serial innovation is key not only to responding to this pandemic but also for our industry, as a whole.
As a company, our Coronavirus Management Team will continue to meet. We will continue to adhere to our principles and adjust accordingly. We will continue to prioritize the health and well-being of our employees and their families and getting our medicines to the patients who need them.
While none of us can predict the future, society is following the precision medicine playbook — from genetic sequencing to targeted diagnostics and highly effective vaccines — and I’d be willing to bet that we will win against COVID-19 and other novel viruses that come our way in the future.