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Dr. Pol Vandenbroucke: “The importance of education”

Effective surveillance and timely data feedback are critical for slowing the spread of AMR, which is recognized as a leading global public health priority that threatens the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases and today claims 700,000 lives annually. Recent estimates are that mortality rates due to AMR in Africa could be nearly ten times […]

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Effective surveillance and timely data feedback are critical for slowing the spread of AMR, which is recognized as a leading global public health priority that threatens the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases and today claims 700,000 lives annually. Recent estimates are that mortality rates due to AMR in Africa could be nearly ten times that of North American and Europe by 2050 and that the economic impact could also be disproportionate, reducing gross domestic product (GDP) in low-income economies by as much as 5.6%.


Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pol Vandenbroucke, MD, MBA, MSc, FFPM.

Dr. Vandenbroucke is Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer’s Hospital Business Unit and serves on the Board of BIO Ventures for Global Health, and the American Federation for Aging Research and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa and a Fellow of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine of the Royal Colleges of Medicine of the United Kingdom.

Dr. Vandenbroucke has been responsible for developing compounds specifically for diseases of the developing world, such as malaria and river blindness. He holds a Medical Degree from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), an MBA degree from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and an MSc (First Honors) from Hibernia College (Ireland). He is fluent in Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and German.


Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Vandenbroucke! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Iam a physician by training and I have always been interested in the systems aspect of medicine. As I have lived and worked in many different countries where I have been confronted with major differences in access to healthcare, I am very interested in addressing health inequities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

At Pfizer, I had the opportunity to lead a program to develop a drug for preventive treatment of malaria in pregnancy in five countries in Africa. Malaria causes over 400,000 deaths each year, most of them children (https://www.who.int/gho/malaria/epidemic/deaths/en/), and pregnant women are especially vulnerable. It was such a rewarding experience that had a significant impact on how I approach my job to this day. Emphasizing the fact that solving the major challenges we face can only be overcome by involving the collective wisdom, expertise, and resources of all stakeholders, it was a partnership of Pfizer with an NGO, Medicines for Malaria Venture and an academic institution, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. We also partnered with international organizations and the local governments and communities in the program and made significant changes to our planning as a result of their input. Further, recognizing the challenges associated with the local health systems we also made a lot of investments in local infrastructure. From the beginning, the emphasis was on finding an affordable solution for malaria-induced death and illness in mothers and their babies, and we designed the program to achieve that goal. I have always felt very proud of that project.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

  • Curiosity: From as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to understand and always wanted to dig deeper. As luck would have it, as a young boy, my father, an engineer, wouldn’t just answer my many questions, he responded with the depth and detail of a science textbook (and a lot of patience).
  • Skepticism based on data: As a preschooler, when my grandfather told me that Santa Claus comes down the chimney, I responded that it was simply impossible since it was far too narrow… I am particularly skeptical when someone says the solution for a complex issue is very simple, as most issues are multi-factorial in origin. The world we live in now faces quite a few of those: the rising threat of Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR) and pandemics (of which COVID-19 is only its latest expression), climate change (which seems to be affecting us sooner than anyone thought), etc. and there are no easy solutions.
  • Interest in different languages and cultures: I grew up in a bilingual family in Belgium, a country starkly divided by language and culture. My father is from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and my mother’s family from France. In addition, my grandfather had done military service in the French army in North Africa and my grandparents took me there as a child. In my mid-twenties I moved to Mexico to be with my then girlfriend and now wife before living in the US, Hong Kong and Japan. I became fascinated with the influence of language and culture on thinking and its importance for successful global interactions. I also became convinced that in the end, we have all the same basic human characteristics and desires but express them differently in different cultures.
  • The importance of education: I really like “Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day, teach someone to fish and they will eat for a lifetime”. I think education is crucial to address the North-South divide and economic and health inequities within countries.

Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Pfizer and Wellcome Trust have launched the Surveillance Partnership to Improve Data for Action on Antimicrobial Resistance (SPIDAAR), a new public-private research collaboration with the governments of Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, to track resistance patterns and better understand the burden of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on patients living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

As recently as 2017, nearly half (43%) of the countries on the African continent did not have available AMR data. Recent estimates project that mortality rates due to AMR in Africa could be nearly ten times that of North America and Europe by 2050 and that the economic impact could also be disproportionate, reducing gross domestic product (GDP) in low-income economies by as much as 5.6%. Timely data and effective surveillance are critical for identifying and tracking the emerging spread of resistant infections, building infection prevention and control programs and informing appropriate treatment to improve patient care. SPIDAAR will leverage the capabilities of Pfizer’s existing Antimicrobial Testing Leadership and Surveillance (ATLAS) platform to support the implementation of the countries’ National Action Plans for AMR as specified by the World Health Organization (WHO). More information can be found here.

How do you think this will change the world?

Effective surveillance and timely data feedback are critical for slowing the spread of AMR, which is recognized as a leading global public health priority that threatens the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases and today claims 700,000 lives annually. Recent estimates are that mortality rates due to AMR in Africa could be nearly ten times that of North American and Europe by 2050 and that the economic impact could also be disproportionate, reducing gross domestic product (GDP) in low-income economies by as much as 5.6%. Findings from the program will help bridge existing AMR knowledge and practice gaps, raise awareness in countries where data are currently insufficient and help integrate infection prevention as well as diagnostic and antimicrobial stewardship. It will also enable evaluation of the impact of stewardship interventions to inform local policy and clinical practice.

Can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

As with any partnership, especially those where you are working to strengthen the capacities and capabilities in low-resourced settings, from day 1 it is critical to think about sustainability and how to transition away from external support. It is very important that this effort can be sustained long-term.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The launch of the SPIDAAR program builds on Pfizer’s longstanding and comprehensive efforts to fight infectious diseases and reduce health disparities for patients in the United States and around the world. The recent reports by the WHOUN, and the AMR Review have all shown that if no action is taken AMR will have a dramatic impact on the society around the world. At Pfizer, we have some unique capabilities to help mitigate this potential impact. As we looked at our own programs and mapped them to areas of need, we saw that there is a significant gap to locally derived resistance data in sub-Sahara Africa. Working with our partner, Wellcome Trust, we were able to leverage the public-private partnership framework highlighted in the Interagency Coordination Group (IACG) on Antimicrobial Resistance report and implement a first of its kind surveillance partnership. More info can be found here.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We must think about how we translate a model like this to other settings. This partnership is leveraging the skills, expertise and knowledge of Pfizer, Wellcome Trust, and our government and hospital partners while avoiding inherent conflicts of interest. It took the leadership and vision of all our partners to recognize that together we can impact more change than on our own. It will take courage and patience from all sectors to identify similar models that can leverage the expertise of each stakeholder and provide a mutual benefit. We also need a mindset that supports and encourages innovation, not only in Research and Development but also innovative partnerships and initiatives.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • It’s OK to say no. When I started out, I felt I had to prove myself and had to do everything that was asked of me and try to make it work. It is very healthy to take a step back and consider if it is even necessary or wise to perform certain tasks and to communicate your reasons clearly.
  • Look for a sponsor who helps steer your career forward and speaks up for you when you are not there. A mentor can help you develop, but you also need someone who believes in you enough to take the risk to actively recommend you for new challenges and responsibilities.
  • Don’t think it’s enough if you do a good job to be rewarded, do let people know, especially higher up in the organization you work for.
  • Decisions you make early on in your career can have a major impact later on and it is important to have a general idea on what you want to accomplish in your professional and personal life; any career decisions are so much easier when you do.
  • And, lastly, one that has helped me in so many instances in my career: The perfect is the enemy of the good. Enough said.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I never liked this type of question; success can be defined in so many ways and is different for different people. I would say it is important to find something to do that you enjoy and makes you feel fulfilled; it makes everything else so much easier. Every job has its good and bad days but when you love what you do the bad days are so much easier to take.

It’s also important to consider the perspectives and needs of your partners and not to look at everything only through your lens. I have often worked with people who think of me negatively because I work in Pharma and I always try to see things from their point of view and focus on the common goal of the partnership. Most of them come around in the end…

Do the most difficult or boring thing first thing in the morning, the rest of your day will look so much better and you will have done it…

And last but not least, a Flemish poet once said that a poem needs a year in the cellar before it is ready. Be always thoughtful in your verbal and specially written communications and never fire off an email or tweet in the spur of the moment.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

The investment must not always be based on immediate ROI. As COVID has taught us we must invest in products and initiatives that may have a longer-term ROI. Investing in new anti-infectives and intervention strategies is exactly this. Since the 1980s there has only been one new class of antibiotics discovered. We must stimulate R&D today through strategic investment, otherwise, we will not have the medicines when they are needed, and as we have seen with COVID-19, in addition to the human toll, the potential economic impact of not having anti-infectives available when needed can be immense.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pol-vandenbroucke-508a3a/

Twitter: @polvandenb

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