Glaxo Prepares Work Force For Worst-Case Flu Scenario
Glaxo Prepares Work Force For Worst-Case Flu Scenario
By Peter Loftus
Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
PHILADELPHIA -(Dow Jones)- GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) wants to be one of the safest places to work in the event of a flu pandemic.
The U.K. drug maker has spent nearly two years making contingency plans to protect its global work force so the company can continue manufacturing the drugs and vaccines it thinks will be critical if a major flu outbreak hits. Whether the preparations are enough is an open question, as experts note that factors outside Glaxo's control could render the best-laid plans moot.
Glaxo's plan includes providing antiviral drugs and pandemic-related vaccines to up to 435,000 people in 137 countries. That represents Glaxo's more than 100,000 workers, plus their families and key suppliers such as the farmers who provide eggs used to make vaccines. Thousands of employees would be told to work from home, and those who do come to work would be spread out to minimize human contact.
Glaxo says it wants to minimize any disruption to production not only of its antiviral drug Relenza and pandemic vaccines, but also its other drugs and vaccines. "If we can't make those, we'd be failing patients with HIV, asthma and cancer," Ronald Joines, director of employee health and business continuity, said in a recent interview near Glaxo's Philadelphia office.
Health authorities worldwide have warned in recent years of a possible flu pandemic, driven by reports in numerous countries of a type of avian influenza known as H5N1, a virus that experts fear could mutate into one that spreads easily among humans and potentially kill millions.
Since 2002, the World Health Organization has tallied about 391 human infections with bird flu, 247 of which resulted in death. The ongoing risk was underscored last week when Chinese authorities ordered a slaughter of thousands of chickens after discovering some birds infected with H5N1.
Glaxo has supplied drugs and vaccines to governments and health organizations in preparation for a pandemic, either through sales contracts or outright donations. More recently, however, sales of Relenza have fallen off, and Glaxo has tried to bolster sales by promoting corporate stockpiling. Relenza sales for the first nine months of 2008 fell about 77% to $86 million. Roche Holding AG (RHHBY), which makes competing antiviral drug Tamiflu, has seen similar trends.
Relenza is used to prevent flu or reduce its severity. In addition, Glaxo makes Pandemrix, a pandemic flu vaccine, and Prepandrix, which is designed to be given before the onset of an expected H5N1 pandemic. Glaxo is studying a similar pre-pandemic vaccine in North America. A Sanofi-Aventis (SNY) H5N1 vaccine is approved for use in the U.S.
One of the first steps Glaxo took was to improve employee participation in its seasonal flu-shot program. The seasonal flu vaccine is meant to prevent non-pandemic flu that circulates annually. Previously, only about 40% of Glaxo's global work force had easy access to seasonal flu shots, partly because the shots weren't available in some countries. Now, about 90% of Glaxo's global work force have access to some sort of seasonal flu shot program, Joines said.
Aside from its immediate benefits, the increased participation is meant to get employees used to the idea of getting a flu shot. Glaxo also has expanded flu-vaccine manufacturing capacity, which can be used in the event of a pandemic.
If health authorities conclude that a flu outbreak is approaching a pandemic, Glaxo's office workers will be reminded to wash their hands frequently and use sanitizing wipes to clean their work spaces. They'll be spread out into empty conference rooms and cafeterias will be closed to minimize human contact - a concept called "social distancing."
The roughly one-third of Glaxo workers who are considered "critical" - including manufacturing employees - would be given daily preventive antiviral medications beginning before an official pandemic is declared, and some would be given respiratory masks while at work. The antiviral options would probably include not only Relenza but also Roche's Tamiflu and generic drugs.
Non-critical workers, including those working from home, wouldn't have to take daily preventive antiviral therapy. Employee participation in the drug and vaccine program would be voluntary, Joines said, because it would be unethical to make it mandatory.
The preparations have led Glaxo to do things it might not have done for business reasons. Previously, Relenza wasn't approved for use in more than 30 countries in which Glaxo operates, either because they weren't considered commercially viable or governments hadn't requested the drug, Joines said. Glaxo has taken steps to register the drug in those countries so its employees have access to the drug in the event of a pandemic.
Glaxo has spent about $6 million to $10 million making the contingency plans, Joines estimated.
It remains to be seen whether these efforts will be sufficient. The company probably won't be able to protect every single employee, and Joines said in a worst-case scenario 1% to 2% of Glaxo workers could die. However, he believes Glaxo's infection and death rates would be lower than the broader population's due to the company's preparations.
There may also be factors outside Glaxo's control that render its preparations moot. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota, sees a pandemic disrupting the supply chain for coal, which would in turn disrupt the electricity supply. That would pose problems for any company's preparedness plans.
"I don't want to dismiss or say these aren't important things," Osterholm said of Glaxo's efforts. "But we need the corporations of the world to stand up and demand protection for basic infrastructure."