Hetero are the nation’s leading producers of lifesaving COVID-19 drug Remdesivir.
By Ashima Sethi
When we think about healthcare workers, we immediately think of the doctors and nurses who are tirelessly treating patients and the emergency technicians shuttling them from ambulance to bed. However, the pandemic has made it apparent that frontline heroes go beyond just those working in the immediate medical field, they are also the individuals who dedicate their time to ensuring that hospitals are equipped for even the biggest battles.
Tucked away in an office in Bangkok sits Ashwin Gurjar, the Country Head of Hetero Thailand, the Kingdom’s outpost of a globally renowned pharmaceutical company with over 27 years in the industry. What sets Hetero apart is it is a vertically integrated company giving quality assurance from APIs (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients) to finished products and marketing high quality biologic medicines across diverse therapeutic areas.
A global leader in anti-retroviral (ARVs) and antiviral therapies, Hetero caters to over 40 percent of the global demand for ARVs and finished dosage forms (FDFs) that are used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, but most recently, their work has been in the headlines as they have been key in producing Remdesivir, which is being used to treat COVID-19 in India and Thailand.
Speaking to Ashwin, his demeanour is calm for someone who has been given the herculean task of ensuring all facets of the business run smoothly during this tough time, a sense of calm he is able to foster as a result of his many years working in the fast-paced world of big pharma. As a child Ashwin attended Bhavans A.H. Wadia High School in Mumbai where a love for both academics and sports was born. Due to good grades, Ashwin had a strong inclination to go into medicine but found that pharmacy was more apt to his interests and love of chemistry. He went on to study a Bachelor’s of Pharmacy before pursuing an MBA at the K.J. Somaiya Institute of Management Study.
He began his career as a Medical Representative before transitioning to a job as a Product Manager. Ashwin then decided and embark on a professional tour to Africa where he travelled across the region, launching initiatives related to malaria control. After five years, he moved to the CIS Countries, which offered a completely different professional experience.
Before joining Hetero, Ashwin worked at Indian conglomerate Piramal Healthcare for six years, where he overlooked bringing US-produced anaesthesia products to the Asian market. Over the years he has travelled to over 40 countries and has been given the opportunity to work in varied positions and in many different markets. This exposure has led him to develop the ability to adapt to any environment quickly, a skill he believes has allowed him to move up the ranks from a humble medical representative to where he is now, working for one of the biggest Indian companies in Thailand.
A position as rewarding as it is difficult, I ask Ashwin what keeps him motivated. “The beautiful thing about pharmacy is that you can impact lives and help people get back on track. This has always been my intent. What use is my knowledge unless I can help others?” As dedicated to family as he is his job, Ashwin talks about how his wife and two children have been supportive. “My wife has always been a pillar of support in my chequered career, as she understands the nature of my work, my passion towards it, and the challenges associated with the pandemic. As someone who is socially active, I’ve also been leveraging my network to help Indian community members secure vaccines and find hospital beds.”
To better understand what Ashwin is tasked with on a day-to-day basis, he explains the nature of his work and why Hetero is considered a pioneer in mitigating crises in a Masala exclusive.
What sets Hetero apart from other pharma giants operating in this region?
Very few are vertically integrated, so beyond that some of the things that set us apart include our work in chronic disease therapies. Another unique point is our commitment to consistent, quality products that are available on a continuous time basis. We have regular checks into the pharmacology of our products to ensure nothing is ever amiss. Moreover, although we have roots in India we are a global company with a presence in 126 countries and 36 state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities worldwide.
This is not the first time that Hetero has helped with mitigating life threatening illnesses worldwide. What past efforts put Hetero on the map?
There is no way to predict pandemics but our senior management always had a vision for scaling up capacity wherever possible. This has played a significant role in our response to global crises. In 2006 when Bird Flu emerged, Hetero was the leading company making generic Tamiflu in finished and raw material forms to treat the illness. This gave the company overnight recognition as a company working in the field of lifesaving medication. Our work has since expanded to HIV/AIDS medication, cancer treatment, and now back into Remdesivir. All therapies centered on COVID are being developed for the larger market by Hetero.
Can you explain how Remdesivir works now that it is widely talked about?
Given intravenously (via injection), Remdesivir works by interrupting the production of the virus by interfering with one of the key enzymes that the virus needs to replicate, thus preventing it from multiplying. A critical factor in the effectiveness of Remdesivir is that it should be used within the first nine days from the onset of symptoms. In moderate and severe cases, it can aid with faster recovery.
How does Hetero create awareness about their products?
Hetero engages with doctors and pharmacists through continuous medical education activities and conducting trials. We also foster product awareness during booth exhibitions and participation in both local and international conferences. All these channels allow us to pass on the relevant information to healthcare professionals.
How did you ensure a rapid response when COVID hit Thailand?
Thailand handled the COVID situation well initially, but it only takes one person to break a chain of millions. I knew COVID was not going to go away so easily, so I made the call to invest in our distribution pipeline, we trained our teams, educated our customers and made sure to be ready for anything. I was proactive in making the decision to import Remdesivir along with several other lifesaving drugs, which was a big decision because medicines expire if they are not used in time.
How has the pandemic affected your daily operating model?
The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has definitely affected our supply chains and imports from India. There has also been a sharp rise in costs of drugs, which we had to bear due to the rise in API/Freight costs. In terms of daily operation, it has indeed been challenging to reach our customers but thankfully we have been able to engage with them through new IT tools that allow them to stay updated about our products.
What kind of channels are you working with to distribute your products?
I think our success is rooted in partnering with the right people. We have partnered with one of the largest health care distributors in Thailand, they have been in the business for more than five decades and have a great distribution model and a robust IT system we can use to track inventory and shipments.
How did you ensure that there was an undisrupted supply of medicine during this lockdown period?
The supply chains across the board have been substantially impacted due to COVID. There was a massive shipping disruption that has impacted our operations and all of these changes led to more focus on inventory management and anticipating demand for the market, which was not easy but I believe success is rooted in a team’s effort. We had to have a lot of talks with our factory and those involved in logistics. There were numerous calls made to ensure we had 24/7 supply available for hospitals with our essential drugs. These close coordination measures are essential to minimise supply shocks in the event of disruption or emergencies.
With all that is going on, how do you maintain a work/life balance?
I make sure to dedicate my mornings to myself by doing meditation, jogging, or reading the Bhagavad Gita. I am also a routine badminton player and find that a good game really brings the competitive person out of me and helps me battle any stress.
Do you believe that the crisis has changed the nature of the pharma industry?
In wake of the crisis, I would say the industry has changed for the better in terms of giving priority to human life over profit. It has also brought forth reason to collaborate, so companies big and small are working together to achieve cost effectiveness and to ensure accessibility for patients worldwide.
What are the goals that Hetero is working towards?
The immediate goal is to ensure a continuous supply of COVID medication across the country, to ensure that we are supporting patients with the highest quality products at the best possible price. In regards to long-term goals, it would be to bring in new and novel products to improve the healthcare situation as a whole. We have a very strong pipeline of cancer, HIV, biosimilar drugs, so this is one of our strengths. We would like to continue meeting large capacities and meeting global demand.
What advice can you give those who want to join the industry?
The industry is growing and young professionals should recognise there are many sought-after positions available in production and manufacturing, research, sales and marketing, jobs in retail pharmacy, and in the academic side.