The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an unprecedented global effort to discover, test and manufacture a vaccine that will successfully protect against the virus.
Stevens graduate Pam Cheng '92 M.Eng. '95 has a front seat to those efforts.
As Executive Vice President for Global Operations and Information Technology at AstraZeneca, Cheng oversees planning and preparation as the company's vaccine candidate undergoes development and testing in partnership with Oxford University. That candidate, known as AZD1222, was recently assessed by the World Health Organization as the most advanced effort of more than 100 candidates worldwide.
For her many accomplishments, Cheng received an International Achievement Award from Stevens in 2019. She currently serves on her alma mater's President's Leadership Council as well on the School of Business Board of Advisors, and was the featured speaker at the university's 2016 Graduate Commencement.
Cheng spoke about her path through Stevens and her work leading a global healthcare company's operations during a health crisis.
WORKING IN BIOPHARMA
Q: As a Stevens chemical engineering student, did you ever expect to be working in the biopharma field, racing the clock against a pandemic?
A: Not at first. When I graduated, I actually went into the petrochemical industry, working in refineries and spending a great deal of time in the field. Later I joined Merck, where I spent 18 years. It’s been 23 years for me in the biopharmaceutical industry and I remind myself every day of the privilege of being able to make a difference in millions of lives around the world.
The training I received at Stevens was incredibly helpful. Irrespective of the discipline, you learn problem-solving at Stevens as an engineering student; you learn logical thinking, a pragmatic approach to challenges.
In every role that I’ve had in my career, including as the President of Merck (MSD) China when I ran the entire subsidiary company, Stevens education and training gave me the tools to solve problems and approach challenges in very effective ways. Stevens taught me to be data-driven and evidenced based when it comes to decision making; professional and life experiences taught me business acumen and organization awareness. All of which you need to be an impactful leader.
“Stevens gave me the tools to solve problems and approach challenges in very effective ways.”
Q: Is there a personal reward, working in the biopharmaceutical industry?
A: Yes, it is such meaningful work. It's sad to see the bad press on the industry, but we are here to push the boundaries of science to save lives and improve health for many. My colleagues and I are incredibly driven by this mission. Throughout the pandemic, a significant portion of my teams around the world continued to work on the front line to ensure supply of medicines to the patients.
Our facilities around the world never ceased operations during this unprecedented time. We took great care to ensure we protect our employees, and their safety and health was our highest priority. I’m so proud to say that with the commitment of 14,000-plus colleagues working at our sites and working from home, we have had zero meaningful disruption of supply during the pandemic. I’m incredibly proud and touched by the commitment and passion of our teams.
Our mission of saving and improving lives gets me up everyday and gives me the energy and passion to work hard and be on the road the majority of my time. In the end, I count my blessings to be able to make a difference.
RESPONDING TO COVID-19
Q: As EVP for Global Operations & IT, what's your role in planning out the manufacture and delivery of a potential vaccine, assuming it proves viable and is approved for clinical use?
A: In my role, I lead about 19,000 of AstraZeneca's 70,000 global employees. In addition to our normal business operations, my job during COVID-19 has been to create supply chains for this vaccine as quickly as possible, from development to manufacturing to supply chain design.
To date, we are setting up supply chains capable of delivering about 2 billion doses of this potential vaccine. We are able to bring our large-scale clinical and supply capabilities to complement the excellent work by the Oxford team.
The development and manufacturing setup for a vaccine usually takes many years to accomplish, but we are trying to squeeze everything into approximately nine months. Instead of the traditional sequential work of getting clinical trial data before investing in manufacturing and supply chains, we are doing them in parallel. We are investing in manufacturing and supply chains before we know this vaccine works. AstraZeneca has committed to making the vaccine available globally at no profit during the pandemic.
Q: Have you ever taken on a project as big or fast as this?
A: I'm known in the business to move fast, to be efficient, but I've never had to move this fast. It's a little scary at times — or, let's say, exciting in the sense that this virus has brought out a common enemy for all of us in the business. I have seen how my colleagues and I are willing to literally work 24/7, for days on end, to get this done and we are happy to be doing it. That's impressive. I'd never seen this before, the speed we are moving at.
COVID-19 really has changed our ways of working, taught us a lot of lessons: what might have taken ten meetings to decide, in the past, is taking one meeting now — because we simply don't have time for another meeting. As engineers and scientists, there is always going to be more data to obtain and process, and our natural inclination is always going to be to want to wait for more of that data. But right now, no, we don't have that additional time to wait.
Our company mission was very clear from day one of this effort: that if this proves to be an effective vaccine, we've not wasted a single day in delivering the vaccine to people around the world. Our goal is we would have doses immediately available upon approval from the regulators around the world, such as the FDA in the U.S. Our teams are feeding real-time info to each other, working with a dozen partners around the world communicating in real time and exchanging new data as we get it.
And all this time, we all know a day will come in the fourth quarter when we get the data back on this vaccine candidate. That day will either be very exciting, because we move forward, or extremely anticlimactic, because we will abort the program.
Q: Talk about the speed at which this is all happening, as you try to manage all the various pieces of the puzzle.
A: What remains unchanged in this speed is the importance of safety and efficacy. We are taking great care to ensure the proper protocols and studies are performed and followed to ensure the safety and efficacy of this potential vaccine.
The part we are accelerating is the planning and execution for manufacturing and supply chains. We are working with agencies and organizations around the world, such as BARDA in the U.S. and [the philanthropic health organizations] CEPI and GAVI in Europe. We have received tremendous support, without which we wouldn’t be able to make this happen.
So we are taking risks on the investments and resources, but zero risks on safety and efficacy. There are multiple clinical trials being set up or ongoing in the U.K., U.S. and other parts of the world. We are not taking any shortcuts here.
Q: What was your first task, your first phone call, when AstraZeneca made the final decision to work together with Oxford on development of this new vaccine candidate?
A: Sometimes, I believe, you have to slow down to speed up. So I gathered a couple folks on my team — senior leaders in our biologic and supply chain groups whom I really trust.
I told them, before we run, let's talk about what this is, what are the elements that we need to think about, before we get many more people involved and it becomes more complicated. We made a game plan, if you will. Mind you, the final execution turned out nothing like what we were drawing up on those virtual flip charts that day, but it gave us a good basis to begin.
What does a lean model look like, how do we make this work, how do we make and supply this vaccine — and without jeopardizing our core business, our fundamental mission of supplying all our other medicines? And how do we do it during a pandemic, in an environment where there are much uncertainties? And how to do it while creating enough bandwidth for each other to operate? That's what we talked about that day.
Q: AstraZeneca is trailblazing, in a sense, in the way it is working with U.S., U.K. and other regulators to speed clinical trials and approvals.
A: Our experience working with the governments around the world has been tremendous. The support has been just remarkable. Without that support, we could never move this fast.
AstraZeneca is playing a role in bringing these different entities together. We focus on the science and share progress and thinking across the board. Our goal is to bring equitable and fair access of this potential vaccine to the world — and that mission should be borderless.
Q: AstraZeneca is also partnering with the Gates Foundation, the Serum Institute of India and others to plan vaccine delivery to developing nations, where it will be so critically needed. How did this come together?
A: When we first became involved, the first thing my boss [AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot] talked about was: this cannot be a privileged vaccine for the developed countries only; we must ensure a fair and equitable access to those who need it. So that has been our motivation and objective ever since.
Our second thought was: We can’t do this alone, we need private and public partners. We are grateful to be in partnerships with so many, including CEPI and GAVI, to ensure equitable distribution of this potential vaccine.
Q: It has been remarkable to see so many pharmaceutical firms focusing on this single, immediate goal. If your vaccine candidate does not prove viable but another company's does, would AstraZeneca help deliver it?
A: I've actually been asked this question by a number of my own employees. Would we use the capacity identified to help another vaccine if AZD1222 doesn’t work? Absolutely, yes. Without hesitation. We are working so hard to set this up, and we would love to see it leveraged. We are all trying to do the same thing, which is to fight against COVID-19.
And I have to say — as an executive, a person, as a global citizen — I do hope sincerely that we are not the only successful vaccine. I really mean this. Solving this crisis requires a global effort that goes beyond any one company or country. So in fact I actually have my fingers crossed that we have multiple vaccines available to the world, and soon.
Q: As you ramp up planning for a potential COVID-19 vaccine, are digital technologies assisting in the lift? Do you leverage AI, machine learning, novel communication technologies and the like?
A: Absolutely. We use virtual reality and wearables, for example, to do technology transfers and troubleshooting remotely without having to visit the sites.
We have leveraged data and AI during COVID-19 to help us manage our supply chains and logistics. We have also created various dashboards and reports to allow us to have real-time data and visibility of our operations.
And, of course, we are using digital technologies to enable virtual ways of working and collaborations. Prior to COVID-19, we already had a strong foundation of digital technologies and video conferencing. COVID-19 has accelerated our digital journey throughout the company. Nowadays, literally 99% of my meetings are by video and we are not missing a beat. Be it meetings or collaboration sessions, we are able to successfully adapt to the new ways of working.
We now have five generations in our workforce. It is interesting to see how everyone adapts to these digital technologies and new ways of working. It really speaks to the notion of life-long learning that is so relevant these days.
We are also conducting a few exercises on ways of working post COVID-19. How do we learn from this pandemic and harness some the of the great things and sustain it? We have increased engagement from our employees across the board, enhanced team collaborations and an unprecedented passion and commitment to make a difference. So how do we keep that moving forward, to never waste a crisis?
THOUGHTS ON BALANCE, ADVICE FOR STUDENTS
Q: How do you keep everything in balance and moving forward — not only in this COVID-19 vaccine effort, but in work and life?
A: I have always worked hard all my life, but to be completely honest I've never worked as hard as I am right now. Since we're a global organization, my days can start at 5 a.m. and end at midnight or beyond. It’s a bit crazy to say that I feel great doing it, as I know we are doing critical work. However, I do recognize that I am not 20 anymore.
So, from the personal side, I would say two things have helped me manage it. First, it's always about family. Since the COVID-19 crisis began I am even busier than usual, but no matter what is going on we always pause to take some family time together daily. Even if it is just 30 minutes or an hour during dinner, I will always parse things to spend time with family unless there is a true urgent matter. The second thing is, you've got to take time to exercise or you will just fall apart from exhaustion.
I also had to re-prioritize my time. Even if you're going to work 24/7, even if you work smarter, you can never get that 25th hour in a day, right? So my executive teams stepped up to allow me to spend time on this vaccine.
I’m blessed with a great team. My senior leaders are stepping forward, we are dividing and conquering.
Q: Thank you for your time, and continued success with the vaccine effort. A final question: as you reflect upon your Stevens years, how do you advise the university's current students to think about their own lives and futures?
A: One of the most frequently asked questions that I get is, "You’ve had a very successful and impactful career, how do I get to be like you?'” And I always tell them, it's simple: hard work. I know that's not the sexy answer, but I worked my tail off in college and throughout my career.
“Work hard right now, every day, to make yourself stronger and better. It will benefit you later.”
The first job that I ever took, I decided I had better be good at it. I do every job as if that’s the only job I will ever have. I’m a believer that if you give it your best and you are making a difference, then the rest shall come. I was sought out by the majority of the opportunities in my career — always a case of “hey, we saw what you can do and we would like you to do more,” and I’ve rarely said no to doing more.
So work hard right now, every day, to make yourself stronger and better. It will benefit you later.
Sometimes when you're a college student you can't see your future. It was hard for me to imagine my role today when I was younger. But when a big challenge does eventually come find you, will you have the substance, the experience and the leadership to rise to that challenge? So think bold, and think big about what you can do and the impact you can have. Be hungry to learn and build substance and leadership.
Enjoy life, but don’t cruise through life. Remember: if you want to be unique and irreplaceable, then you will need unique and irreplaceable capabilities and leadership.