GIG: Can you tell us more about your operations in Greece and your strategic priorities in the future? How important is the Greek market for AbbVie, and what is its role within the broader geographical region?
Apostolides: Around the globe, as well as in Greece, AbbVie strives to make a remarkable impact on the lives of patients. We do this by focusing on four therapeutic areas (immunology, oncology, neuroscience, and virology), leveraging more than 125 years of innovation. Regarding the importance of the Greek market, please note that AbbVie has been recognised by FORTUNE as one of the ‘most admired companies’ for many years in a row through a very demanding voting process where 1,700 C-suite executives from 350 companies – across all sectors – rate our performance in several criteria ranging from innovation to corporate social responsibility and quality of products and services. As you can easily understand, our performance is in line with the importance of the Greek market where AbbVie has a strong focus on investments in clinical trials. I am proud to say that we are the only multinational pharmaceutical company in Greece with a clinical trials hub in Athens, and we seek further investment opportunities.
GIG: Can you tell us more about your clinical trials centre in Greece? What are your plans for expansion within the market?
Apostolides: Our Site Management and Monitoring Operations Hub is responsible for a cluster of 13 countries including Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, Hungary, Italy, Qatar, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, and Turkey. This brings AbbVie into second place as a performer of active clinical trials in Greece, with total gross value added (GVA) effects of €7.5 million for 2017, which have been generated by R&D activities. Furthermore, our clinical and medical departments currently support 41 direct jobs including doctors, chemists, biochemists, pharmacists, and biologists. We hope that the further development of the clinical trials landscape in Greece – especially regarding the legislation for approval timelines – will help us to expand our footprint during the coming years.
GIG: How will the new investment incentives rolled out by the government, particularly with respect to the pharmaceutical sector, affect your plans for Greece?
Apostolides: The ability to offset clinical trials investments with clawback payments is an incentive of significant importance which can play a crucial role towards the country’s competitiveness improvement. As you know, clawback payments for the pharmaceutical companies in Greece are totally out of control; according to the latest estimates we foresee the relevant payments exceeding €1 billion. The willingness of the government to offset only €50 million for 2019 and €100 million for 2020 is a good first step, however it can be perceived mainly as a symbolic action rather than a substantial one.
GIG: What are the biggest obstacles you face in doing business in Greece? What else needs to be done to promote further investment and growth?
Apostolides: As I said before, the biggest obstacle is the uncontrolled amount of clawback payments we face every year. Towards this direction, we believe that the government along with the pharmaceutical industry could build a consensus basis on how the market should evolve during the next three years. A relevant memorandum of understanding (MoU) clarifying the terms of ‘co-responsibility’ in the annual budget excess and the ‘reciprocity’ of our clawback and rebate payments could bring significant stability and predictability to our operating environment. This is the main key to unlocking the potential of the Greek economy in order to attract more direct foreign investments, which is a top priority for the Greek government.
GIG: R&D is a very big part of your business and philosophy. Do you find enough talented professionals in the local employment pool to meet your needs? And how has the so-called Greek brain drain phenomenon affected this?
Apostolides: The quality for conducting clinical trials in Greece is more than adequate both in terms of skills and infrastructure. Even though more than 17,000 physicians (and over 400,000 mostly-educated individuals) left the country during the crisis, the available workforce in the country is characterised by high quality and talent. Greek families have invested huge amounts of money in education during the past few decades and this investment is clearly reflected in the new generation. However, we cannot ignore that part of this investment is now utilised by other countries because of the brain drain phenomenon, and it is our duty to incentivise these scientists to return home. Towards this direction, a long-term national policy for clinical trials must be set immediately into place to send a clear signal abroad that Greece is working consistently on this topic to become a regional leader in Southeast Europe.
GIG: AbbVie was listed earlier in 2019 among the top 10 medium-sized Best Workplaces in Greece by Great Place to Work Hellas, the Greek branch of the global company Great Place to Work. What’s the secret? How important is this for you, and what will you do to maintain it?
Apostolides: I am really proud that AbbVie is in second place on the Best Workplaces list for 2019, and that we are the only company in Greece that remains in the top three for five successive years. Creating a friendly workplace is a core in our philosophy and our team has worked really hard to achieve these results. Every year we try to raise the bar, both in terms of infrastructure and benefits for our employees, in order to show our deep respect and appreciation for their efforts. This trend is going to continue because we strongly believe that our most important asset is our people.
GIG: As a global biopharmaceutical group, you have developed a stream of innovative new medicines over the years. Can you tell us more about some of your most exciting developments in the pipeline?
Apostolides: Science and innovation are cornerstones of our business. We focus on discovering, developing, and delivering medicines where we have proven expertise and can bring greater benefits to patients. Our portfolio contains therapies in 32 diseases, while we continue to invest in the discovery and development of new medicines for a healthier world. Towards this direction, we’re studying compounds that have potential to treat more than 1.5 billion people globally. More specifically, and in order to give you just a taste of our efforts, more than 200 oncological clinical trials are in place for 20 different types of cancer, which could translate into 51 potential new medicines or new indications for existing ones.
GIG: What do you see as the world’s most pressing health challenge at the moment?
Apostolides: The biggest challenge we face these days is the gap between the value of new innovative medicines and the willingness of governments to recognise this in practice. Budget restrictions and system inefficiencies are becoming more and more significant with direct impact on patient access. In Greece, for example – apart from the skyrocketing clawback and rebate payments – for a period of almost a year, not a single new innovative medicine entered the market because the newly established Health Technology Assessment (HTA) and Negotiation Committees did not have the required capacity. In order to overcome these difficulties, governments should work closely with the pharmaceutical industry in a cooperative rather than a competitive way. New policy tools and solutions must be in place to secure that pharmaceutical innovation will keep evolving at the current pace.