Stefan Oelrich, Global Head of Bayer Pharmaceuticals, at a conference in San Francisco, USA, in January 2020.STEPHEN LAM / Reuters
The German giant Bayer inaugurated this past Wednesday in San Sebastián what will be its key plant in the world for the production of gene therapies in the coming years. This opening was attended by Stefan Oelrich (Wilhelmshaven, Germany, 53 years old), president of the pharmaceutical division of the German group and who is clear that this is the future of medicine and also of his laboratory.
“I see gene therapy as the great opportunity of the next 20 years, to find solutions for patients that are directed towards the regeneration of a tissue or towards a repair of a genetic disease that may exist and that until now were non-treatable pathologies”, he assures in an interview conducted in Spanish, since Oelrich learned it in Argentina in his first job as a Bayer medical visitor. “They called me the little German,” he jokes.
Oelrich returned to Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 2018 as president after a brief stint at Sanofi. Bayer had a turnover of 41,400 million euros last year, of which 17,245 million (a fall of 1.5% year-on-year) correspond to its health division. “When I returned three years ago it was clear that we were reaching the end of a stage in the history of the pharmacy,” he reflects. “You had to look at the next cycle that we have to start. And one of the things that I see when I look at the state of science is the biorevolution, the discovery of the genetic code, which at first was like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Today we know how to translate them into applications ”.
For this reason, it decided last year to acquire the American company Askbio, for which the German group will disburse up to 3,400 million euros according to progress in certain commercial milestones. This purchase included various gene therapies in R&D, such as one for Parkinson’s, and also the small San Sebastian center of the Spanish subsidiary Viralgen. The next step has been to build a new factory in San Sebastián in which they have invested 70 million in a first stage, which will be fully operational in 2022, and another 50 million in two future phases. “This is the most important plant we have in this technology. This is where the products for everyone will come from, ”emphasizes Oelrich. “This will become very important for the group. They can be very large and significant products ”, he adds.
Without success against covid-19
One of the decisions that Oelrich has also had to make is the entry into the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, since Bayer had no previous experience in vaccines. The laboratory has partnered with German biotechnology company CureVac, which has an experimental alternative based on messenger RNA, to which the giant has offered its capacity in medical trials, manufacturing and worldwide distribution. This biotech advanced on Thursday that despite the effectiveness of its option is only 48% (compared to more than 90% in the versions of BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna), it will try to get the EU to approve it.
“We wanted to help. I called the CEO of CureVac [Franz-Werner Haas]. I remember that call very well, in June of last year. I did not know him. After Pfizer made a deal with BioNTech [también alemana]I told myself that it was a shame that I, with the largest laboratory in Germany, did not know these companies or their managers. And that an American company has to come to help them produce the vaccine against covid. It was June, very early in the clinical development part ”, he details to explain why he decided that Bayer should go into the search for the vaccine.
Asked whether he considers a failure for Bayer not to have a vaccine, he assures that he does not see it that way and remembers that the pharmaceutical company had neither the experience nor the technology. “I approached CureVac and asked if I could help them. I do not regret”. Regarding the intention to obtain the authorization of the EU for its vaccine, it considers that the decision does not correspond to Bayer.
The controversial acquisition of Monsanto
Another thorny issue the Leverkusen conglomerate has had to grapple with is the acquisition of the crops company Monsanto. The operation was complex due to the large company debt and its impact on the Stock Market and, above all, due to the agreed compensation. Bayer has agreed to assume about 10 billion dollars (8.428 million euros) in the United States to settle the lawsuits on whether the use of the herbicide glyphosate had to do with cases of tumors. These problems may have affected the reputation of the German group.
“In the pharmaceutical part I do not see much difference. I do not believe that there is change, neither positive nor negative, in doctors and patients. It is true that Monsanto’s reputation was not the best, but today we are Bayer, which has its reputation for innovation and the behavior it shows. “
But was the purchase a mistake? “It is difficult to say that because more is known today than we did five years ago. I prefer to look ahead and I see that in terms of the crop R&D portfolio we are clearly world leaders, we have very important technological advances that we are going to contribute to the food of the future. I think we need to talk about this issue in five or ten years ”.