I recently read that Novartis has decided to shutter its antibacterial and antiviral research and development programs. It reminded me of something that happened shortly after I joined the Wyeth Research organization as an HR leader in the early 2000s.
Wyeth had made the decision to pull out of the antibiotics space. My role was to assist in the exit of a group of very bright scientists who were the discovery leaders of our antibacterial and antiviral therapeutic area. This meant that while we continued with a few compounds already in the development pipeline, Wyeth would no longer be bringing any new compounds into development.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it’s part of the job in HR, no matter what industry you’re in.
When you’re in the middle of this, you start to wonder -- where will all of the talent go? It doesn’t always work out for the worst, by the way. Years before at another company, I had worked on an integration project of the R&D organizations of our company and the company we had acquired. Hundreds of employees around the globe could have been affected by the layoffs, but we used incentives, retirement and some shuffling around to bring that number down to a mere 30.
Novartis has thrown around “140” as the approximate number of employees who will be directly affected by the company’s decision to exit this part of their business. No one’s saying whether those people will be let go or if they’ll migrate to other roles in the company. If Novartis doesn’t hang onto the employees, we could be looking at an influx of scientists and/or engineers who are all back into the job market and vying for the same jobs. These workers won’t be alone either since Novartis is just one of a growing number of life sciences companies to close this part of their business.
If you’re in the life sciences, you already know that Novartis’s decision isn’t driven by a societal lack of need for new antibiotics -- it’s because the cost to develop new antibiotics is huge and the risk is great. When I worked with R&D teams, our goal was always to kill potential drug/compounds as early as possible. The longer a drug stays in the dev pipeline, the more a company stands to lose when it doesn’t pan out. With the advent of superbugs, the risk keeps growing.
Still, even when you know the reason why this is happening, it doesn’t make the action any easier to swallow. Society WILL need antibiotics that haven’t been discovered yet, but if no one is willing to take the risk, how will we get them? My colleague Bob Hennessy and I discussed this the other day, “Failed trials in this area have hurt investment,” he said. “I have a friend who tried to launch a start-up in this space, but it’s tough competing for funding with newer technologies. And without funding, you’re not getting anywhere.”
He’s right. Big pharma has investors to answer to, so efforts without the right profit margin aren’t worth their time. Small firms can’t attract the cash they need for products that won’t pay off big. Unfortunately, for me this isn’t one of those instances when knowing why makes the action any easier to swallow.