CONVERSATION · PETER CORR
November 15, 2003 | As Pfizer senior vice president, science and technology, Peter B. Corr oversees $7.1 billion in annual research and development spending, the biggest private R&D budget in the world. He is also the only senior executive from the former Warner-Lambert Company to rise within the ranks of Pfizer, which acquired W-L in 2000.
Bio·IT World executive editor John Dodge interviewed Corr at MIT's Emerging Technologies Conference in September.
Q: What role does IT play at Pfizer?
A: We use IT at virtually every stage of what we do — mining the genome, looking at proteomics, and looking at protein profiles from Alzheimer's patients. A huge portion of our budget is spent on IT. We can use IT to look across our library of compounds and say these look the same but they dock slightly different into the protein. With every compound in our library, you can go to a database and look it up. We have 2 million compounds in that database. We know all the data collected on that compound.
IT is clinical trials. Two-and-a-half years ago, we had 2 percent to 3 percent of data captured in clinical trials electronically. We call it e-data capture. Why is that powerful? It's powerful because you get [the data] immediately ... Now, 70 percent of our clinical trials are being done with e-data capture.
We still have to, by law, make out clinical report forms — pages and pages of things. Errors can be made on that form. If they are mailed in [with mistakes], then the monitor has to go to the site and get things corrected. Queries-per-page is a very expensive number. The cost of doing clinical trials will be impacted by e-data capture, cleaning up the queries much earlier on. When you get to the end of the trial, you can lock down the database and get the answer.
Q: What is it like managing the largest R&D budget in the world?
A: I manage it from a perspective of direction and where we're going. Each of the sites are empowered to execute from discovery all the way through to development. We set the overarching strategy and are very connected to the business component. That doesn't mean everything we go after has to be a blockbuster, and that there has to be a huge patient population. In fact, we are in a Phase III trial for malaria. We're not doing that for commercial return, but because we happen to [find] something pretty extraordinary in resistant malaria [where there are] 1.5 million malaria deaths [a year]. We realize we really won't be able to sell the drug. We'll give it away in Africa. We do that with Diflucan for AIDS. We do that with Zithromax (an antibiotic).
I make sure that we're leveraging scale around the world, that we are not repeating technology at different sites (eight sites, 12,500 scientists, 250 partners, 18 therapeutic areas). We build a major technology at one site and use it across all sites. Yet, the sites need to execute their [own] goals.
Q: How do you deal with the belief that pharmaceutical companies gouge Americans on drug prices?
A: The fact is what we need is better and more effective drugs, and we need them utilized appropriately. We can solve the access problem, getting them to the people who can't afford them in both the developing world and the U.S. In the developing world, the problem — despite what you read — is not the availability of drugs. We will provide a drug for any lifesaving condition to the 50 least developed countries in the world for free.
The problem is those countries don't have a healthcare delivery system. They have no way of taking an HIV drug, and the public doesn't understand this. Taking an HIV drug is not equivalent to [flying] in a C-141 with food and dumping the drugs off. You need to have an infrastructure where the patient can be given the drug. If it's twice a day, they have to be monitored for their viral load. If the viral load is not coming down, the drug needs to be switched.
We provide the drugs for free. We don't believe in lowering the price because in Africa, where the average person has medical care of $10 a year, it doesn't matter if it's 50 cents or $4 a day. They can't afford it. If you make it zero, you produce two things. The shysters from Brazil and India who are stealing technology can't go lower than zero. The second thing is that they can't send them there and ship them around to the developed world, which is what they really want to do [along with] making money. This is not all altruistic, by the way ...
What we need to do is train physicians and healthcare workers to be able to work with HIV patients. We are building a hospital that will open this year in Uganda to treat patients and to train physicians to treat infectious disease all over Africa.
Q: Is there an answer to high drug prices in the U.S., or is the solution a combination of one-off giveaway programs with a dose of technology, politics, and education thrown in?
A: The public does not understand the issue. Politicians think in two-year increments. They look like heroes in the short term, but our children are going to pay the price. These aren't things where you turn on switches and turn them on and off. The industry is spending $32 billion this year on R&D. If they stop spending that or drop it to $5 billion, the impact is going to be huge, but it's not going to be seen for several years.
Then people will [say], 'Cancer rates are going up and there are more people in the hospitals and more people getting HIV.' We have four drugs in development for HIV. It's predicted that in 2005 and 2006, most HIV patients will be on salvage therapy because the other drugs will have developed resistance strength. So all of a sudden, the government is going to say, 'HIV is back. Are there any drugs?' No.
Q: But when Lipitor goes off patent in 2010, it will have generated $100 billion in revenue. How do you get around the perception that drug companies are too profitable?
A: A lot of [companies entering the small-molecule business] have died or left the industry in the past 20 years. It's too expensive and risky.
Q: So the riskier the bet, the bigger the pay-off should be?
A: Absolutely! If you want no risk, put your money in a passbook savings account or CD. Society has to understand when risk is high, the return has to correspond. That doesn't mean we have to gouge. We don't gouge. Is it true the U.S. is paying the lion's share for R&D? Yes. What should we do? The U.S. ought to go and look at Western Europe and say, why is Novartis moving its R&D headquarters here? Why are we closing [a site] in Germany? Why did we just close a site in France? Why is Lilly no longer going to invest in Munich?
More online: The complete interview.