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[Interview with global pharmas] ‘GSK Korea goes all out to help Korean patients, host nation's healthcare system’CEO Julien Samson put stress on public wellness
  • By Lee Han-soo
  • Published 2019.03.25 15:15
  • Updated 2019.03.28 10:19
  • comments 0

Korea's medical and pharmaceutical industries have reached a global level over the past years. Such exponential growth has made the country one of the major players in the world participating in global researches with other multinational companies. Against this backdrop, Korea Biomedical Review has decided to hear the opinions of the CEOs of multinational pharmaceutical companies here concerning Korea’s healthcare system, research and development, and international cooperation. -- Ed.

A year has passed since Julien Samson took office as the head of GSK Korea in March last year. As the first foreigner who took charge of the Korean offshoot of the multinational pharmaceutical company, he has efficiently put the company back to growth by overcoming challenges plaguing the company.

However, Samson believes there is still much to be done. To this end, he is working out additional concrete measures to improve the company's first-in-class access to Korean patients while renewing the company’s corporate culture.

In an interview with Korea Biomedical Review, Samson emphasized GSK Korea’s short- and long-term measures to reach the goal and his impression of the Korean pharmaceutical sector in its process.

GSK Korea CEO Julien Samson talks about his company’s future goals and its work in Korea, during a recent interview with the Korea Biomedical Review at the company’s headquarters in Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Question: It has been a year since you took office as the first foreign CEO of GSK Korea. During the past year, how has the company changed internally and externally?

Answer: We were facing some challenges back then. However, building on the strength of our company, we made good progress. The Korean branch’s performance has fit nicely with GSK’s global strategy -- innovation, performance, and trust (IPT).

Regarding performance, the company has turned back to growth, which is very important, as it means that we are achieving the objective of helping more patients.

Concerning innovation, we have made good progress on advancing our pipeline and access to such drugs in Korea.

As to trust, we have undergone dramatic changes in how we do things. Over the past year, the company has put much energy into making GSK Korea a better workplace. Such effort has led the company to be recognized as the most admired workplace among the multinational companies in Korea for the second time in a row.

Q: Would you elaborate on the trust-building issue?

A: Trust also relates to our relationship with our patients. Our utmost goal is to build trust with patients by delivering the best products to those in need. First and foremost, we are a pharmaceutical company, and we want to help patients feel better and live longer.

The company has been quite active in the field of relationship with patient advocacy groups to understand their needs better and help them. Such activities include our corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities.

GSK's commitment to building trust is also to continue our R&D projects. We have an excellent team, which has a good rapport with the company conducting various clinical trials for the company.

Last but not least, it’s about the future, as at the end of the day we all know that there are still a lot of unmet medical needs in the world, including Korea. We still have a lot to do to develop new molecules and devices that can help patients.

Q: As you have worked in various countries, including France, how does Korea fare in the global pharmaceutical market? What are its merits and demerits?

A: The reality is that there is an excellent healthcare system in Korea. The pharmaceutical market, which is a part of the system, is no different. Korea has a sizable market and growth, and access for patients is very open, at least for the reimbursed products.

The level of quality and expertise of the hospitals in Korea is amazing. I was a hospital manager before starting my career in pharmaceuticals, and I can tell that any hospital here in Korea can compete very easily with big hospitals in other advanced countries. The level of advancement also extends to the research side as the doctors we are working with for our clinical trials are exceptional.

At the same time, however, there are a few challenges and the two main challenges access and process.

Regarding access, we still have too many new drugs, which are stuck in the waiting list. This means that the drugs have been approved by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, but yet received reimbursement. As a result, the drugs are theoretically available for patients, but access is a challenge.

What is important to note is that such drugs stuck in the access loop amounts to about 600 products.

For the process, which includes the regulatory, quality, pricing and reimbursement process, we are still facing a few issues because of the complexity of the regulation.

Q: Such as what?

A: There is a high level of awareness and understanding of the issue. To move forward, however, the industry and authority have to work together to find solutions. I firmly believe that the answer is already on the table and I don’t think that it is a massive political problem as they are a merely technical one.

Korea can make massive progress by unlocking a few of these regulations. Although I have heard that the top authorities have vowed commitment toward amending the rules, I have not seen a lot.

This is not a problem limited to GSK Korea.

A survey, conducted by the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ECCK) on CEOs from EU companies based in Korea, shows that there is a consensus among the companies that Korea's business environment deteriorated compared to 2017.

We all acknowledge that we can operate and do business in Korea, but we also recognize that we are not in the best situation possible as most of us had to go through reorganizations in the past one to three years.

Now we are facing new challenges to manage the company, including labor cost, 52-hour week, overtime payment and minimum wage, but it’s not the only reason.

Q: Why is that?

A: Although it differs depending on the industry, for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies the main challenges are again in the access and process issues.

GSK is no different. Although we recognize the functional aspects of doing business in Korea, GSK along with other EU pharmaceutical and healthcare companies believe that we have to be vocal on the things we think are preventing us from doing a better job in Korea.

The ECCK is in a dialogue with regulatory officials to build a platform for change. I am a true believer that we should see progress in the future, and it would be of great help to everyone.

Q: Are there any suggestion to improve the situation?

A: There are two big topics to improve the situation in Korea.

One is on the flexibility of the system. Currently, the only way to create flexibility for very innovative or expensive drugs is to use the risk sharing agreement (RSA). The method is widespread in the rest of the world. In Korea, however, the scope of the RSA is minimal and narrow.

The agreement only covers specific oncology drugs and rare disease drugs, while also just covering first-in-class products. As a result, only about 20 out of 22,000 approved-drugs in Korea are covered by RSA.

The difference between what constitutes as a rare disease by the government and RSA is also an issue.

For example, Lupus disease, which has 24,000 patients in Korea, is included in the rare disease list established by the government but is not included in the RSA. The consequence is that the only drug that treats Lupus, which is manufactured by GSK, is not accessible in Korea through the reimbursement system. The only way to get the treatment is out of the patient’s pocket. However, the drug is an expensive drug, and many patients go on without receiving treatment.

Q: Are there more cases?

A: The other example is severe asthma. Patients in Korea cannot get reimbursement for biologics treatments, which are the most innovative and expensive treatment in the field. For the last three to 10 years GSK has launched various drugs to treat the condition. However, none of them are reimbursed in Korea while the company’s treatment is reimbursed in every single OECD countries, excluding Korea.

As there are no pathways to reimburse the drugs at a reasonable price in Korea, the current system has created a loophole where the patients are waiting, and the company has an accessible drug, but it’s too expensive.

I hope GSK Korea can find a solution for both illnesses with the government this year.

Q: What is the second issue?

A: The second issue revolves around pharmaco-economics exemption, which is a way to assess differently the value of an innovative and rare drug.

Typically, the value of a drug is determined by the government by using a quality-adjusted-life-year (QALY) ratio, which is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. Some countries compare their gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to the cost per QALY of new medical interventions.

Korea also uses the GDP to determine a drugs price. The problem is the GDP that the government uses as a reference is set on Korea’s GDP in 2009, which was 25 million won ($23,000).

Therefore, companies cannot accept the price that the government demands and it creates a waiting list and delays for launch, which in turn, affects patients.

It’s a straightforward fix as the government only has to change the reference GDP as the government should assess the innovation with 2019 standards and not the rules of 10 years ago.

GSK Korea CEO Julien Samson

Q: GSK Korea was criticized for sending the highest dividends to its parent firm last year. Is there any response to the criticism?

A: The pharmaceutical industry is not a monster, but we are a profit-based company. So in every single country, the local operating company sends dividends back to headquarters.

This is the same as Samsung. Samsung has a massive plant in Vietnam, and they are sending dividend back to Samsung Korea.

The company understands the focus on the dividends, but that’s only one side of a larger picture. Yes, there is a financial flow between Korea and GSK headquarters in the U.K., but there is also flow between the GSK headquarters and Korea.

That’s what we don’t see in the papers, and that’s what we as a company don’t talk about.

Yes, the company sent back 15 billion won ($13.2 million) back to headquarters in 2017, but we also received 20 billion won to conduct R&D in Korea. We are talking about more than 35 clinical trials with 250 investigators in all of Korea and not only in Seoul.

Q: How do you plan to plan to run the company in the future? What are the company’s short-term and long-term goals?

A: When it comes to future strategies, we’re going to stick to IPT.

For innovation, we want to accelerate access to new drugs, which are not where it should be in the access process. The company is still discussing with regulatory officials about the pricing and reimbursement process for innovative drugs. The reason the company is putting much effort into this area is to help and give patients with high unmet medical needs access to the drugs.

The company plans to launch about 20 drugs in Korea in the next three to five years mainly in our key therapeutic areas – respiratory, vaccines and HIV. On top of that, the company is investing a lot on oncology and immunology on a global level. Therefore GSK Korea plans to bolster its efforts for immunology in Korea.

The company is also aware of the amounting interest regarding Shingrix, our shingles vaccine. Although not yet registered in Korea, the vaccine has been launched in the U.S., Canada, and Germany. The treatment has been a significant success as the vaccine it twice as good as its competitors. The problem is that the vaccine is too of big a success and has already become a blockbuster drug in the first year of its launch. We have 100 percent market share in Canada and 80 percent market share in the U.S., which in turn, has led to more demand than supply.

Therefore, the company is investing in increasing the production capacity for the vaccine, and after two to three years we plan to roll out the vaccine in other countries, including Korea. However, we cannot give a definite date on when the vaccine will arrive in Korea, but we are working hard behind the scene to position Korea in the front.

Q: What about your performance and trust objectives?

A: On performance, GSK Korea wants to maintain its growth spurt sustainably.

Regarding trust, our primary focus is on “employee engagement enhancement.” Building upon what we did last year we want to continue to improve and continue to listen to feedback from the employees and change what we need to develop and make GSK Korea a better workplace.

To achieve such goals, the company has a regular internal survey that helps us feel the pulse of our employees, and in parallel, we have a special task force that supports the company understand the need of its employees and also test some solutions and recommendations.

I believe that the company’s effort has built a strong relationship between the leadership positions and the team. As someone in a leadership position, I don’t think the company culture is something that could be dictated by whoever the great leader you are, but settled on open and honest communications between employees and managers.

Although we are walking in the right directions, I think we can do more to accelerate the procedure.

Q: Are there any additional comments that you would like to make to Korean regulatory officials and patients?

A: For me, the message is straightforward. GSK Korea has an extraordinary purpose, which is to do the best it can do to help more patients feel better and live longer.

The company plans to commit on its purpose not only to the patients, but also medical professionals, and pharmacists. GSK Korea intends to work with everyone involved in the medical community so that at the end of the day we can bring hope to patients.

There are not so many businesses which are in charge of hope, and that’s why I am proud and still excited to work in the healthcare business even after 20 years.

I hope we can continue to work together to maximize such hope, and have a smile on our face at the end of our career.


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