CSL has mobilised its workforce and re-tooled its plant to produce millions of doses of AstraZeneca. The Herculean effort is in line with its corporate purpose. CSL’s recently appointed Chief Scientific Officer Dr Andrew Nash speaks to The Ethics Alliance about the challenges and triumphs.

It’s a new age for medical companies like Commonwealth Serum Laboratory (Australia's biggest global biotech company), and one in which some companies have found their purpose tested. Are you happy with the way things are going at CSL? 

CSL is a highly purpose-driven organisation. Our people put the CSL value of “patient focus” at the centre of all our decision-making which, in turn, is informed by our Code of Responsible Business Practice that is updated on a regular basis. Along with our values, it sets the guardrails for our conduct.   The pandemic and vaccines really point to the importance of ethical behaviour by large corporations like CSL. How has the company and employees handled the obvious pressures of dealing with the vaccines that can save so many lives?

Our employees are incredibly proud of the work they do for patients. We know that for some people with life-threatening diseases our therapies save their lives or improve their quality of life. This driver has only been reinforced during the pandemic and our focus – right around the world – has been continuity of supply for the products that patients rely on.

At the request of the Australian Government, we retooled our existing onshore recombinant protein manufacturing facilities in order to manufacture the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine for use by the Australian people in 2021. To fulfil this commitment, CSL has made significant adjustments to its base manufacturing business as well as undertaking extensive preparation work to responsibly accelerate production of AZD1222.

Our employees have worked 24/7 at speed to modify and reconfigure our biotech manufacturing facilities for efficient, safe production of this new vaccine. CSL is proud to have been able to use our facilities and expertise to support Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program, while maintaining production of the life-saving and critical therapies and products which are the core business of Seqirus and CSL Behring.    How important is it to have a local drug manufacturing industry in Australia? The vaccines against the pandemic all came from overseas and CSL has already warned about the investment necessary to ensure these products are available to Australians. What do you think needs to be done – and how important is the principle of sharing medical breakthroughs across borders?

Australia has a huge opportunity to leverage the ‘acceleration’ of science we’ve seen through the pandemic, and invest further in the nation’s world-class medical research and development eco-system. The need for a robust, sustainably funded scientific community has never been stronger. There are compelling economic reasons to invest in science.

Australia punches well above its weight when it comes to science and medical research – but ideas often go offshore before they can provide an economic return on investment to taxpayers. A globally competitive business environment that drives growth and investment well beyond the pandemic is a must. There is no doubt that onshore manufacturing can play a pivotal role in serving the needs of the nation’s community, as has been the case in protecting public health in Australia through the supply of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. 

We have been active about the need to ensure that the brilliant research undertaken in Australia can stay in Australia, and we welcome efforts such as the patent box tax incentive announced in the recent Federal budget as a lever for taking research from the bench to the clinic, and ultimately for the benefit of patients and public health.

CSL played a leading role in the launch of the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, an unprecedented industry partnership to develop a potential plasma-derived hyperimmune therapy for treating COVID-19. Was that collaboration important? And what part will it play in the future? 

A crisis breeds trailblazers and ingenuity, and the acceleration of solutions to treat and prevent COVID-19 has been inspirational. The world must harness the best of the universal cooperation that has emerged and tailor it to fit a post-COVID world.

For companies to collaborate in the way we did, for the benefit of public health, holds us in great stead for future global health crises.  Keeping staff safe was an important CSL committed to keep plasma centres and manufacturing sites open during the pandemic to maintain supply of lifesaving medicines and influenza vaccines. How did CSL manage staff and morale at this time?

We quickly recognised the unsettling nature of the pandemic and the impact it had and was going to have on the daily lives and routines of our employees, their families, loved ones and friends. Aside from ensuring the necessary safety precautions were adhered to, especially for employees working on site, in Australia, we wanted to ensure employees were supported in all aspects their health and wellbeing, including physical, mental and social health during the year. Over the course of the year, a number of positive health initiatives were launched, largely to support the vast number of employees who were working remotely.

Initiatives included: wellbeing and social safety podcasts; virtual training webinars including topics such as ‘Maintaining Mental Fitness’ and ‘Leading mentally fit teams remotely’ which was available for people leaders. We also ran virtual Lunch and Learn sessions, networking opportunities, remote quiz afternoons, cooking demonstrations, virtual yoga to name a few.

In addition to offering employees at essential sites flexible Caregiver Leave of Absence and Caregiver Allowance plans to provide support for balancing work with home-schooling and other caregiving responsibilities, we launched Wellness Days, enabling all employees to take extra time to allow them to focus on their physical and emotional well-being, when they needed it most.

The Commonwealth Serum Laboratories was established in Australia in 1916 to service the health needs of a nation isolated by war. How similar would you rate the current crisis?

On many levels the public health response was similar, however because of advances in science and technology since then, we have been able to more rapidly understand the virus and how it infects cells and causes disease. This has resulted in the very timely development of approaches for both preventing as well as managing and mitigating the implications of infection. The scientific community today is highly collaborative and eager to share and learn from gained knowledge. This has obvious advantages for the development of therapies and public policy around health management. 

CSL is very proud of what we have been able to do for Australians. We were asked by the Australian government to help, and we dug deep to achieve what 12 months ago we couldn’t have imagined. Australia is lucky to be one of only a handful of countries in the world to have onshore vaccine manufacturing capability.

Our capability is the result of a long history and commitment to investing in pharmaceutical manufacturing capability in Australia, while building scale globally in order to be sustainable. This has allowed us to be as responsive as we have been.

We continue to supply increased volumes of influenza vaccines in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres – this supply is critical to ensuring we don’t see a ‘twindemic’.

CSL’s purpose is: “The people and science of CSL save lives. We develop and deliver innovative medicines that help people with serious and life-threatening conditions live full lives and protect the health of communities around the world. Our values guide us in creating sustainable value for our stakeholders.” How has CSL ensured staff understand that purpose? And do you think that purpose can coexist with shareholders, boards and a profit-centred model? 

Our employees hear from and see the impact of our work on patients. Patients are not at arms-length – their perspectives, experiences and stories inform all that we do. If we serve patients well and right, they and our stakeholders will benefit. We know this and we see this happening, and our stakeholders do, too.