By Denise Roland 

Paul Hudson had a lot on his plate as the new boss of French health-care giant Sanofi SA: radically pruning its drug pipeline, cutting EUR2 billion ($2.17 billion) in costs by 2022 and making the company's consumer health-care division a stand-alone unit.

All of that has been put into perspective by the drugmaker's new priority -- finding a vaccine or treatment to overcome a pandemic that has thrown the world into turmoil.

Sanofi is actively involved in the pharmaceutical industry's efforts to develop an antidote to Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. It is working on two potential vaccines. It, together with partner Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., is running global clinical trials for Kevzara, an arthritis drug that appeared to counter dangerous lung inflammation in Chinese patients with severe Covid-19. It is also one of the world's main suppliers of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine -- now in hot demand after some small studies suggested it could fight the virus.

Meanwhile, the 52-year-old Mr. Hudson and many of Sanofi's roughly 100,000 employees are navigating new ways of working. Around the world, Sanofi's office-based staff, including its executive team, are working from home to minimize the spread of the virus. The long-term impact of which could mean less need for business travel after the pandemic ebbs, he said.

Mr. Hudson, a former top Novartis AG executive who joined Sanofi as its chief executive in September, spoke to The Wall Street Journal this week from his home in Paris. Here are edited excerpts.

WSJ: Where is Sanofi in the race to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus?

Mr. Hudson: It's a race we're happy to lose, but in the vaccine world we need to have a few shots on goal. Moderna [a U.S. biotech company whose vaccine is already being tested in human volunteers] is a little bit ahead, but I'm worried they won't have enough, which is why we'd still have a role to play with our slightly later approach.

[ Moderna Inc. representatives couldn't be reached for this article, but the company has said it is preparing to rapidly accelerate its capabilities to allow for the future manufacture of millions of doses of the vaccine.]

WSJ: How quickly could your possible vaccines be widely available?

Mr. Hudson: If we come through the first steps, we might be vaccine-ready in Q2 of 2021. We can make hundreds of millions of doses.

WSJ: Sanofi sources ingredients for its drugs from all over the world. How has your supply chain been hit by the pandemic?

Mr. Hudson: It is true, that with the lockdown in India and the hangover coming out of China, that if this went on for a very long time, all companies in the industry would be affected one way or another. But we're maintaining the right inventory levels for now. I'm not concerned about that yet.

WSJ: Have any parts of the business taken a hit from the pandemic?

Mr. Hudson: We have had to make some adjustments because, of course, China went into lockdown earlier. Before the quarantining, we'd started the year very well. We will see how quickly that comes back.

WSJ: Are there ways of working now that will become permanent?

Mr. Hudson: The one-meeting trip will disappear forever. People will get together for networking where it's larger groups, or where there are two or three days' worth of content. That's incredibly important for our commitment to the environment and to respect people's time away from families. We'll be more demanding of the digital space. People will be more confident saying, "Let's do a two-hour Zoom meeting."

WSJ: What has this experience taught you about Sanofi as an organization?

Mr. Hudson: We've put leaders in charge of hydroxychloroquine, Kevzara, vaccines. People have volunteered [to do it] on a massive scale. They are just clearing obstacles and supporting each other. This was not the right way to learn it, but I learned what Sanofi is like when it's world-class -- everybody, every day, everywhere. All peripheral stuff has disappeared.

That's a really quite important moment for me because of my relationship with the organization and seeing it strip away everything except the purity of purpose. One of the challenges to me as a leader will be how to maintain that absolute nonhierarchical, nonpolitical, nonjudgmental purity in delivering on our agenda afterward.

WSJ: How do you rate the government responses to this pandemic?

Mr. Hudson: Where is the European Union's pandemic preparedness? And where is the European sovereignty in readiness? There is no Barda for Europe. [The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority is a U.S. government organization dedicated to preparing against biological threats.] Countries are fighting for themselves.

When we shake this down afterward, Europe should ask itself: Wouldn't a few hundred million a year spent being prepared be better than multitrillion-dollar stimulus packages when you were not ready? And that's always hard, right? People don't like to invest in things that they may never use.

Write to Denise Roland at Denise.Roland@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 03, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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