Jaak Peeters, head of Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health, on pharma’s role in supporting global health, fighting epidemics and making medicines accessible

What is your background and current role?I am head of Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health. Over the course of nearly four decades, I have had positions of increasing responsibility including managing director of Janssen both in the Netherlands and Germany; company group chairman for Janssen EMEA; and company group chairman pharmaceuticals, global strategy, innovation and new businesses where I was responsible for developing the first global pharmaceuticals strategy.

What does your day-to-day work involve?Together with my team, I am building on J&J’s legacy of combining innovation, science and ingenuity to tackle some of the most pressing public health challenges like HIV, TB and mental health. Working with those directly impacted, we aim to make TB and HIV history and wrestle with several other public health challenges. Such ambitious goals cannot be achieved alone and require collaboration at global, regional and country level. Much of my day is spent working with public and private partners, as well as potential collaborators, to build trust and advocacy for our work and enable our team.

Why the interest in public health?The vision for Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health is linked to a deep belief that the world needs new tools specifically developed and targeted to address infectious disease threats and help the most vulnerable in the world – and that it is not enough to create a new medicine, vaccine or diagnostic if those life-saving drugs or devices are not affordable or within reach of those who need them most. My team and I are going beyond corporate philanthropy to address challenges in resource-poor settings, pioneering a new business model which brings our best talent and capabilities to global health in a sustainable way for the long term. We are committed to collaborating with like-minded partners to ensure that crucial medical products and solutions are developed, accessible and, through local collaborations, can be delivered again and again, so we can achieve transformational health outcomes for patients.

What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?In my role as company group chairman pharmaceuticals, global strategy, innovation and new businesses at Janssen, I was responsible for leading development of the company’s first global pharmaceuticals strategy. We made a conscious decision to focus on advancing a pure-play innovation agenda contrary to the industry trend. I am extremely proud – the effective implementation of this strategy has helped Janssen to achieve the most NME approvals over several years.

Do you feel J&J is making a meaningful difference to global public health, and if so how?At Johnson & Johnson we have made great progress in advancing human health and addressing important public health challenges. We developed the first new TB medicine in 50 years, we accelerated development of an Ebola vaccine when the world needed it most and, for over 25 years, we have been bringing breakthrough science with a commitment to reach the ultimate goal of ending the HIV epidemic.

What motivated J&J to join the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)?It was simple: to stop pandemics, we must act now. At any moment, we could once again find ourselves in the midst of a new outbreak like the devastating Ebola epidemic that swept across West Africa in 2014. Zika stands as proof of just that: a cruel and unpreventable disease affecting the development of unborn children. CEPI is a public-private partnership to finance and coordinate the development of new vaccines to prevent and contain infectious disease epidemics. CEPI seeks to give the world an insurance policy against epidemics, by delivering a pipeline of promising vaccine candidates that are tested and ready to use as soon as a disease breaks out.

Are you pleased with what the Coalition has achieved thus far, and what are its near-term goals?CEPI, with its founding investors Germany, Japan, Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, is filling an important need by offering incentives that encourage or help offset cost of development. This will enable more companies and public institutions to develop promising vaccine and therapeutic candidates not just for Ebola, but for MERS, Nipah and Lassa viruses, which could cause serious epidemics.

What should the pharma industry’s role be in supporting public health?We debated this question a lot when we were establishing our Global Public Health organisation. We decided, with the support of many in the global health community, that we should focus on what we do best, which is to advance product innovation that addresses the specific needs of those in resource-poor settings, and support that by ensuring those innovations reach those who need them most.

Could the pharma industry be better incentivised to drive progress in improving public health?Absolutely. CEPI is clearly one way that the public and private sector has come together to try and make that work for vaccine preventable diseases with epidemic potential. The other critical public health issue is drug resistance. This is a complex issue and requires a multifaceted response. A key component of such a response is international agreement on a new approach to research and development, one that does not depend on market incentives to advance new innovations.

If you could highlight a single thing that would make the biggest impact on fulfilling unmet health needs around the globe, what would it be?While we have made progress in addressing public health challenges, we know we can do more, that we must do more. TB remains the number 1 infectious disease killer globally with drug-resistant TB on the rise. HIV infections continue to outstrip those accessing treatment with young girls and adolescents bearing the burden. Diseases like Ebola and Zika threaten all of us. I am adamant that massive gains can be made in global health by unlocking the potential of the private sector and seeing industry as a partner with a permanent seat at the table.

What keeps you awake at night?We have witnessed the devastation of the Ebola epidemic on people’s lives, on health systems and on entire economies. We are so close to overcoming Ebola, HIV, TB and other great challenges of our generation, and it would be truly a tragedy if we as the global community let our guard down for even a moment – complacency is what keeps me awake at night.

What are your passions outside of work?With so much of life truly exciting I have many passions ... from reading history, understanding geopolitics, enjoying the arts and architecture, trying to intensify sport and exercise and, above all, spending more time with my family, children and grandchildren.