You can innovate and create groundbreaking new treatments to help fight infectious diseases, and then work to make those drugs accessible and affordable in the world’s poorest nations. But if you can’t address the full spectrum of obstacles preventing you from getting such medicines to patients, then you’re “missing a piece of the puzzle,” says, Head of Global Public Health at Johnson & Johnson.
And that’s where a new Operations Center that the Global Public Health organization will launch in South Africa this April comes in.
The goal: work in close partnership with local governments and NGOs on the ground to help get the most innovative treatments for such diseases as HIV and tuberculosis to the people who need them the most, as well as develop programs designed to improve access to healthcare for vulnerable communities throughout Africa.
So we sat down with Peeters to hear more about the ambitious program and the obstacles that he hopes to overcome in the process.
You’ve described the company’s global public health strategy as one that focuses on “holistic” solutions. What do you mean by this?
The idea is to not only discover and develop products, and make them affordable—but also get traction on how these products will reach and measurably improve the health of the patients that need them. So it made a lot of sense to bring the capabilities and expertise of our consumer, pharmaceutical and medical devices businesses together with philanthropy under a unified, enterprise-wide global public health strategy.
What are some of the common obstacles the company has experienced in the past with getting such treatments to developing nations?
When you launch a product in Western countries, you have a functioning healthcare system. You have the medical infrastructure. You have trained healthcare professionals. Often, in poorer countries, the infrastructure is underdeveloped, and in some cases, very underdeveloped. These “last mile challenges,” as they are called, can be significant barriers for people to get the care they need.
In the past, we focused on developing innovative products and entered into partnerships that would help make them affordable and accessible to the people who needed them most. Or we worked with partners to train healthcare workers in specific areas to help improve health. But we now know that a more comprehensive approach is needed to make an even greater, long-term impact. And that means you have to take an end-to-end approach and look at what more we can do to deliver better health outcomes for patients.
If we can work with our partners to advance research, development and distribution of new medicines to patients—that will make a difference. And that is fantastic.
So how will the new Operations Center in Africa work?
This operations team will directly engage with and empower researchers and the healthcare community in Africa, as well as work in partnership with local governments and NGOs to better direct our resources and advance innovations that can improve the delivery of care, expand research and development capabilities, and ultimately ensure we achieve measurable outcomes. So it will be a fully integrated organization that delivers end-to-end healthcare solutions.
Let me give you an example: There are now about 10 million HIV patients receiving traditional treatment in Africa. But about 10-15% of them, maybe even more, will become resistant to that treatment and won’t respond anymore.
We are now developing a combination of two second-line HIV drugs in one pill. Our hope is that once we get the necessary regulatory approvals, we can make this combination very affordable to these patients in Africa.
But because of a lack of affordable and easy-to-use diagnostic tests to identify those HIV patients who are resistant to the current treatment, we’re working with diagnostics companies to ensure that very simple, affordable point-of-care viral-load testing is available in these regions when we get approval for the new drug combination.
We also have to work more closely with local healthcare professionals, as well as do outreach within the community to address such issues as the stigma that many people with HIV who are really sick face—they are literally pushed out of society.
So the goal is not just to produce the drug combination, but to also build expertise on the ground in conjunction with local governments and NGOs to help us bring all these different elements together until we have measurably better health outcomes.
Has the company been doing any other outreach work in these communities?
Yes! For example, the rate of HIV infection among adolescent girls and young mothers in sub-Saharan Africa is going up at an alarming rate. Last December, we became an anchor partner in the PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] DREAMS Partnership, which aims to reduce by 40% the number of new HIV infections among this population in 10 sub-Saharan countries by 2017.
There are three goals. First, how can we help prevent young girls from becoming infected, and empower them to make their own health decisions? We know, for example, that girls who stay longer at school have less of a risk of becoming infected.
The second goal focuses on how to get those who are infected the treatment they need. And, finally, how can we help ensure that there’s a more protective environment for these young girls in their community.
Our presence in South Africa will enable us to leverage our consumer insights and operations expertise to help find the reasons these infections are taking place, and then work in partnership to create programs that can help educate these young girls about HIV.
What inspires you to do this work?
Every patient living with TB or HIV who we could help have access to more simplified treatment and better care that could help them live a more productive life. And every death we can help prevent of a mother, newborn or child. If we can work with our partners to advance research, development and distribution of new medicines to patients—that will make a difference. And that is fantastic.