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Most Influential CEOs: GSK's Andrew Witty Gets Medicine to World's Poorest


The Big Pharma head has influenced other drugmakers to follow his lead in making drugs affordable where they're most needed.

Andrew Witty may be young by Big Pharma standards, but the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has already made contributions to the industry that overshadow many accomplishments of his more senior contemporaries.

Witty, just 43 when he took the reins at the British company in 2008, has become the public face for the benevolent side of Big Pharma. In his two years at the helm, Witty has turned Glaxo into a hub of charitable giving. He has also managed to create a company that is doing rather well -- earnings were up 18% in the recently reported first quarter. In 2008, the British drugmaker became one of the first to start emerging successfully from its patent cliff while other large pharmaceutical companies are just approaching the days of patent expiration, which will bring major drops in revenue. Glaxo's successful emergence from the dark days of generic competition is credited to Witty and his diversification strategy that includes a focus on varying areas like vaccines, HIV, and consumer health, as well as a strong push into emerging markets.

Glaxo's recent success has largely been in emerging markets such as India, China, Russia, and Brazil. The company has made licensing agreements, built factories, and made acquisitions that have made it a major player in these up-and-coming parts of the world. Indeed, sales in emerging markets grew 43% in the first quarter of 2010.

Yet, Witty's real accomplishments extend beyond Glaxo's bottom line. In January, the CEO announced a program to help provide a malaria vaccine to Africa and other parts of the developing world during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Glaxo is currently testing the only late-stage vaccine for malaria in 16,000 people and will likely file for regulatory approval by 2012 -- which will make Glaxo first to provide a vaccine for a disease that infects more than 250 million people each year (mostly in poor nations). Witty said that the drug would be priced only 5% above the cost to manufacture it; the meager profit on the drug will be used for research on second-generation malaria vaccines and the R&D of other tropical diseases.

He hopes that by pricing the drugs above cost that he will give incentive to other companies to continue research in disease areas that affect poorer nations. "We are trying to set the expectation that there will be some return [for creating medicines for poor countries]", he said in an interview with Forbes.

In 2001, the company started the GSK African Malaria Partnership to promote prevention and access to treatment in Africa. Prior to becoming CEO of the company, Witty held posts as managing director of Glaxo South Africa and later area director for GlaxoWellcome-South and East Africa, as well as president of pharmaceuticals in Europe. More than $3 million has been contributed to the fund thus far, and Glaxo announced in January that it was contributing another $2.5 million in grants to four non-governmental organizations working in African countries.

Beyond the vaccine and other funding, Witty announced that the company was screening its library of more than 2 million compounds to find any that could possibly be used to treat malaria. The company is making these findings, including the chemical structures of the compounds, available to the public for other researchers to be able to build on the existing data.

Before making his announcements about the company's contributions to prevent malaria, Witty said that drugs sold in the least developed nations would be priced at less than 25% of their cost in the developed world with more than 20% of the profit from those drugs going back into infrastructure projects in those nations. He has also talked about pooling patents with other Big Pharmas to allow for the development of cheaper drugs. GSK's HIV joint venture with Pfizer (PFE) ViiV is currently in negotiations with the international drug-purchasing agency Unitaid to develop a patent pool for AIDS drugs that would allow generic drugmakers to manufacture cheap versions of the life-sustaining drugs to poor nations.

This and other efforts have landed Glaxo at the top of the 2008 Access to Medicine Index (which will be published again June). The index rates the world's largest pharmaceuticals companies on their efforts to increase universal access to disease treatments.

It also prompted one "insider" blogger to suggest that the executive may deserve a new honorific: Writing about GSK's ambitious projects, the creator of PharmaGossip titled a glowing report, "Arise Sir Andrew Witty (or is it Saint Andrew?)"

No doubt, other Pharma watchers would agree.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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