Interview with Irina Zaporozhets, General Manager of Eli Lilly in Russia and CIS
Published on 22 October 2020 by Anna Andriyanova
Adam Smith Conferences: Irina, the section of the conference you’re participating in has “Flexibility, Resolve, Cooperation – Responding to the Pandemic Challenges” as its theme. Can you comment on this theme briefly?
Irina Zaporozhets: Certainly. Flexibility is there because we have all had to adapt to the new conditions – a new reality even, I would say. Resolve is there because we have had make bold decisions, and make them fast. And cooperation is in the name of the section because you cannot really overcome these challenges on your own – that would be impossible.
Adam Smith Conferences: Which of these were the hardest – for your personally and for Lilly?
Irina Zaporozhets: In a blink of an eye, everybody was staying at home, and we had to adjust literally overnight and organize our work differently. We moved our operations work online fairly quickly, we implemented digital signatures, made the necessary adjustments to the key processes of our daily operations. It was only in warehousing where employees had to continue working while being physically present on the company premises.
It was hard to keep up the engagement and keep the people in a good working mood. There was a lot of anxiety. We have a very close connection with the MD community, and I don’t mean this just in pure professional terms. Many families have one spouse working as a medical doctor, and the other working for a pharma company. Many doctors got sick with COVID-19, and now many of us could catch the disease at home, not by working in the field.
Adam Smith Conferences: What did you do to keep people in the good working mood?
Irina Zaporozhets: We strengthened our communications. Before the pandemic, we used to have townhall meetings once ever quarter, now we have them every week. Hundreds of employees join in these online meetings. We use these townhall meetings to tell about the news, share success stories and achievements, interesting finds, and even new talents we have discovered during the isolation. Our meetings have a strong emotional vibe. In addition to this, we tried to teach our employees to work remotely.
Adam Smith Conferences: Is this a skill that can be taught?
Irina Zaporozhets: It can be, and it must be taught. We held psychological training sessions. We taught people to manage their emotions. This was necessary because everybody took remote work in different ways. Some found themselves in their perfect comfort zone, while it was causing panic and depression in others. We helped by running remote workshops to help people adapt more easily. And certainly we were paying attention not just to the mental, psychological health. Most of our employees found themselves sitting in front of a computer for 10 hours a day, so we are paying a lot of attention to ergonomics. We gave our employees an opportunity to choose ergo equipment and furniture for their home office.
Adam Smith Conferences: You have said that pharma companies had to make difficult decisions during the pandemic. Can you give a few examples of those?
Irina Zaporozhets: Any decisions you have to make under conditions of uncertainty and turbulent upheaval can be described as difficult. Risk management competencies have come to the forefront. We have all heard about companies expanding their capacity for making vaccines and COVID-19 therapies even before Phase 2 and 3 trials were completed. Lilly is not an exception in this. We are studying the potential alternative uses of our established drugs to treat the coronavirus, we are looking for new antibody-based treatments and preventative therapies, we are still doing research and tests, but we are also expanding our capacity at the same time, so that, if the test results are good, we can quickly bring to market treatments that are so necessary.
Adam Smith Conferences: Are you doing this on your own or in partnership with others?
Irina Zaporozhets: In partnerships. And we have never established new partnerships so quickly before. It took us only one month to sign a deal with a privately held Canadian company AbCellera, to co-develop antibody therapies for COVID-19 treatment and prevention. This collaboration has enabled us to leverage AbCellera’s rapid pandemic response platform and Lilly’s capabilities for fast development, manufacturing and distribution of essential life-saving treatments.
We have also signed an agreement with China’s Junshi Biosciences to co-develop a potential COVID-19 antibody therapy. Junshi focuses on development and commercialization of innovative treatments, they were among the first in the industry to start R&D on COVID-19 treatments. And our jointly developed antibody therapies are currently in clinical trials.
Adam Smith Conferences: And what about government regulators?
Irina Zaporozhets: The pandemic has shown that interactions with the government can be much more efficient than we have come to think. For example, when one of our products was included in the clinical recommendations for COVID-19 treatment, we had to deliver it to Russia within two weeks, although this process usually takes three to four months. The Russian Health Ministry approved the product for import in English-language packaging, and we added the Russian translation of essential drug information when it was already in Russia. The Lilly team which has been dealing with importation, customs clearance, and supply planning for years, they did not think this kind of speed was possible or realistic. And it turned out that nothing is impossible if the goal is to help patients who need treatment.
Adam Smith Conferences: One of the key areas for your company is manufacturing oncology treatments. What changes or complications have you seen in that area because of the pandemic?
Irina Zaporozhets: We had to ensure an interrupted supply of products even though they are still manufactured in Italy, Spain, and the US – which all were the hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic at the time. We are talking about cancer therapy, which cannot be put on hold, treatment must continue without interruptions. And we must help the public healthcare system to protect chronic and cancer patients from getting infected. On the one hand, we carefully managed drug deliveries, anticipating and averting any possible complications or trouble that could arise around shipment, customs clearance, and any other obstacles related to the quarantine.
On the other hand, we joined other pharma companies in the Line of Kindness – a program to support patients. We provided all kinds of support to patients as part of that program – from informing them about what help and medical care they could get while hospitals were repurposed for treatment of COVID, to calling the taxi for patients to make sure they would minimize their contacts and avoid having to use the public transportation.
Adam Smith Conferences: What is your most important goal now?
Irina Zaporozhets: To meet all of our targets for this and the following years, because this will determine the amount of investment in the Russian market. This isn’t easy right now, because there are too many variables and too much uncertainty, but it is essential to make the right decisions now. The pandemic has taught us to set clear priorities in our work. For my team and myself, these priorities are ensuring uninterrupted supply of our products to patients in Russia, and protecting the health and well-being of all our employees, both those working from home and those working “live” at the company’s facilities and in the field.