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What it’s like to work toward a Covid-19 vaccine in record time

Five expert minds at Johnson & Johnson are making history alongside their colleagues. To them, developing a vaccine isn’t just a job — it’s personal.

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In the past year, people all over the world have gained a new level of respect for essential workers on the front lines of society, from nurses and doctors to restaurant servers and delivery drivers. Perhaps less visible but equally important is the dedicated effort of scientists and healthcare experts who are working on more than 200 coronavirus vaccine candidates around the world.

From lab research to supply chain management, teams at Johnson & Johnson are making promising headway at each stage of the development of a vaccine. We spoke with five key scientists and healthcare professionals at Johnson & Johnson to shed light on the realities of working for an essential business, the rhythms of their day-to-day, and the adjustments they’ve made in the current global environment.

Read on to discover how they’ve personally been navigating 2020.

The 5 Stages of Covid-19 Vaccine Development

Headshot of Dr. Rinke Bos
Stage 1: Preclinical Stage

Rinke Bos, Ph.D., Principal Scientist at Janssen Vaccines & Prevention

As part of the discovery team at Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Bos worked to find and test a vaccine candidate in its early stages. Her team focused largely on the preclinical stage of vaccine development — designing the vaccine, testing DNA, generating and characterizing the vaccine candidates. In our conversation, she emphasized the need for efficiencies and collaboration inside the lab, where new safety regulations have prompted nuanced adjustments. With her eye on the improvement of global health, Dr. Bos reflects the passion and commitment of those on her talented team.

You work mainly inside of a lab. Tell us about that environment. How has it changed since the start of the pandemic?

When we were developing the investigational vaccine, we needed to work as quickly as possible, and that requires a lot of intentional collaboration and communication. We have so many team members with different expertise — all which are needed to build a vaccine — but my team and I are in a small scale setting so we need to be thoughtful and follow social distancing guidelines. So, for example, if someone checked the candidate DNA in the morning and confirmed it by 10:00 a.m., then it would immediately go to the next person, who would begin vaccine production the very same day. The connection between all of our roles is crucial so we need to be very strategic about our lab time.

Of course, when the government announced new regulations for lab work, we had to work from home if we could work from home. But that’s not entirely possible if most of your work is inside the lab, so we quickly took measures to keep our distance, like using a sign-in system to book lab time.

What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

I started working in this field because I found myself fascinated by the human body — particularly, the immune system. There are so many unknowns, and it’s so complex, but the human body and its immune system is an integral part of our lives. Of course, if and when the development of our candidate for a Covid-19 vaccine is successful, that will be the most fulfilling part of my job. But until that happens, it’s already fulfilling to realize we were able to start clinical trials on a vaccine candidate after six months while ensuring high quality standards.

Is there one thing that you wish more people outside of medicine understood about your job?

Sometimes people think that if you start working for a pharmaceutical company, you don’t really have that science component to your career anymore. I think Covid-19 started to show the world that we really do care, and that we’re passionate about it. We work very hard to contribute to global health.

Headshot of Dr. Johan Van Hoof
Stage 2: Phases 1/2a and 2b

Johan Van Hoof, M.D. Global Therapeutic Area Head, IDV Vaccines

Once a promising Covid-19 vaccine candidate was identified, Dr. Van Hoof — who leads Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine organization — and his team began working to advance the candidate further. In his words, “Our team is dedicated to the development of vaccines that improve our ability to prevent, intercept and treat life-threatening infectious diseases worldwide” — but his 35-year career in global healthcare has seen many different phases. His experience in the field and watching innocent lives be affected by infectious diseases has reinforced his passion and drive.

In your career, what continues to surprise you in the fight for equitable, global healthcare?

In my time at Johnson & Johnson, I have always been impressed by the constant innovation that results from collaboration with our global and local partners. As a company, we have a legacy of coming to the aid of local and global communities in times of crisis. Our aim is that by working closely with our partners around the world, we will continue to leverage our world-leading scientific minds and bring forth our full breadth of resources to deliver the best science-based solutions on an equitable, global basis.

How do you separate work from home now that remote work is a factor?

The teams and I are working around the clock, but it’s so important to take a break whenever time allows. I dedicate time to my personal hobbies just for a chance to step away from the computer. While I typically don’t have time to watch films, I’m a fan of The Big Bang Theory — it’s a great way to relax in just 25 minutes.

Remote working has forced our teams to connect virtually, which has been surprisingly beneficial in its own way. It allows for even more regular collaboration with those in other countries, so all of us don’t have to be in one location to conduct our research. But of course, I hope we’ll be able to regain the benefit from face to face meetings and discussions soon. Especially for brainstorming, nothing can replace being together in the same room.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

It’s fair to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected my day-to-day life in ways that I had never experienced in my 35-year career. I’m truly impressed by the resilience our teams have shown in adapting to the ‘new normal’ to pursue the development of a safe and effective vaccine.

Across the span of my career, one of the most difficult aspects of my job is seeing first-hand the impact that infectious diseases can have on vulnerable people. I traveled to Sierra Leone and witnessed the devastation that the Ebola virus outbreak was inflicting on the people of the country. This reinforces the importance of our work and drives me as we strive to provide solutions to these preventable diseases.

Headshot of Dr. Ramon Polo
Stage 3: Phase 3 Trial

Ramon Polo, PharmD, Ph.D., Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for Infectious Diseases and Vaccines and Global Public Health

Before being distributed around the world, a vaccine candidate must pass regulations. Dr. Polo maintains communication with governments, regulatory agencies, and health authorities in order to move forward in the development process. While watching his wife fight (and win) the battle against Covid-19, Dr. Polo added a personal motivation to his drive in building a working vaccine. He says his main desire when going into this field was to find solutions for unmet needs. Fast forward to today, and he has tackled Hepatitis C, Influenza, RSV, and more. Dr. Polo is passionate about solving problems for the sake of his family and others who have suffered at the hands of an unpredictable virus.

With such a high-pressure profession, what gets you out of bed in the morning? Where is your focus?

Well, every day is a motivation. I think when you see the impact the virus is having in the day-to-day life of so many people — and I can speak about that from personal experience — being part of the solution is your “mission” that motivates you to continue doing what you do every day. And what we do every day in Global Regulatory Affairs is to try to make sure that we connect all the pieces of the puzzle to really bring the investigational vaccine faster to those in need.

I’m focused on the investigational vaccine, I’m focused on the investigational therapeutics, and as my wife says, my life is Covid-19, because that’s what I primarily work on all day. In my free time, I’m working on elements of education on the topic of pandemics so that we can educate others and be ahead of a potential future virus.

Were you surprised by this pandemic?

I wasn’t surprised. At Janssen — part of the Johnson & Johnson family — we’ve been preparing ourselves for a pandemic for many years. Since my time working on infectious diseases, particularly on respiratory viruses, we’ve followed a potential threat in the influenza space. We were very active working with the US government in developing potential treatment and vaccines for influenza pandemics, and we’ve had that collaboration since 2014, starting with the Obama Administration. Since then, I think the concept of an epidemic or pandemic was absolutely present. I was surprised it was a coronavirus — we thought it would be an influenza virus.

What are your predictions for our post-pandemic world?

I think this pandemic is going to leave us with several takeaways. One is the amount of digital platforms to connect us from wherever we are in the world — that will be much more mainstream than it has ever been before. At Johnson & Johnson, we’re used to that because we work in a global environment, but we are re-learning to do this with our loved ones. It’s unfortunate because there are cultures like mine — I’m Spanish with dual American citizenship — that are always kissing, touching, and hugging. So, the first thing that I have to do is to unlearn my principles and really be able to be, in some way, anti-Spanish. Because in a pandemic, that distance is what helps you be ahead of the virus.

Headshot of Paul LeFebvre
Stage 4: Regulatory approval and licensure

Paul LeFebvre, Vice President, Advanced Therapies Supply Chain at The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies

Part of staying ahead of the virus is making sure a vaccine is properly distributed at a large scale. The supply chain is an integral piece of vaccine development once a candidate has undergone rigorous testing and approval — or in the case of the Johnson & Johnson investigational Covid-19 vaccine, while the candidate is still in the phased trial period. As the leader of the Janssen Supply Chain program for Johnson & Johnson’s investigational Covid-19 vaccine, LeFebvre faces the unique challenge of ensuring efficient and safe production and distribution of an investigational product that is still in development. Still, he remains positive and passionate through his focus on every detail in order to properly supply a potential vaccine, while still prioritizing existing medicines and deliveries for communities around the world.

What drew you to this particular field?

I studied Mechanical Engineering in college and was always interested in how things are made. Since then, I’ve had a 35-year career in end-to-end supply chain and was presented with great career opportunities across multiple product industries, from pharmaceuticals, OTC’s, medical devices and fast-moving consumer goods.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities right now?

My role is to ensure resources and teams are in place, clear directions are set, and timely decisions are taken when required, to continuously ensure alignment and communication across our teams. Finally, I ensure all team members have the proper support to be efficient and properly manage their work and energy levels.

What is the most fulfilling part of your job? The most difficult?

I get very energized working alongside talented people across all functions and levels who share the same drive and passion to make an impact to society. But it’s very challenging to set up a supply chain network while the product is still in development. We have to be flexible, make assumptions, and be ready to pivot when new information comes in. The set-up of a new, global, end-to-end supply chain network requires very strong collaboration. We must pay attention to detail at every step, especially with accelerated timelines in this pandemic.

Headshot of Remo Colarusso
Stage 4: Regulatory approval and licensure

Remo Colarusso, Vice President, Janssen Supply Chain

Another expert on the supply chain, Colarusso is no stranger to the world of medicine — his mom, dad, and three of his siblings have all worked in pharmaceuticals. In his words, “I was drawn to how this industry makes a life-saving or life-changing impact for so many people.” Today, Colarusso spends his days running the end-to-end supply chain for the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical business, ensuring customers are reliably receiving their medicines in a timely manner. He’s proud to work alongside a passionate team dedicated to the needs of their patients.

Who is expected to get an investigational Covid-19 vaccine first and how would it be distributed?

Once proven safe and effective, we’re committed to working with healthcare leaders to make our investigational vaccine accessible globally. Our goal is to make the vaccine for administration to healthcare workers first. Then, over time, and as manufacturing capacity increases, we hope look our investigational vaccine will be available more broadly.

Assuming the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved, we’ll use our extensive transportation and warehouse capabilities to get it distributed to governments and other purchasers. Each shipment of our vaccines will include technologies that give us its location, temperature and other information in real time so we can assure that the quality and integrity of our vaccine is maintained.

What do you think is a realistic expectation for the initial supply of the Janssen vaccine?

Based on current development timeframes, we are aiming to deliver a vaccine for emergency pandemic use in the U.S. by early 2021, and aim to be ready to deliver our vaccine in the first quarter of 2021 to support any emergency use approvals across the globe.

What inspires your team to think up new and innovative ways to distribute medicine?

I am so fortunate to be surrounded by a talented, experienced, and passionate team and all of us are inspired by the needs of the customers and patients we serve. We have a shared goal to supply hope and pioneer solutions that deliver better health to those we serve. It’s our job to ensure that our medicines reach our customers, and ultimately the patients who depend on them, safely, with high quality, and in a timely fashion.

With a new year on the horizon, experts at Johnson & Johnson are focused on immense collaboration, communication, and above all, passion. Their desire for a potential Covid-19 vaccine mirrors those of individuals and communities around the world, but their motivation goes far beyond work responsibilities. As best described in the ethics pledge signed by Johnson & Johnson, their teams around the world are dedicated to the ethical and safe development of a Covid-19 vaccine, no matter which company reaches final approval first.

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