Managing Director of Janssen South Africa, Francisco Plaza, has been a busy man over the past year. If he hasn’t been working towards a vaccine to rid the world of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been supporting his employees as they navigate the uncertain times we find ourselves in. Plaza spoke to Leadership about the process required to create a vaccine, as well as the importance of understanding the facts, in an interview which is likely to put many a mind at ease.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the big question has always been: when will a vaccine be ready? Luckily, and through the hard work of many across the globe, the vaccination process has started. South Africa, too, has kicked off their vaccination programme. While it has not been plain sailing, with issues around efficacy in terms of new strains coming to light, health care workers in the country are receiving their inoculations and the next phase—catering for the most vulnerable in our society, is about to kick off.

Janssen, the pharmaceutical arm of Johnson & Johnson, has played an integral part in bringing a vaccine to the masses. While they are one of many vaccine producers, their one-shot vaccine is 85% effective overall in preventing severe disease and demonstrated complete protection against COVID-19 related hospitalisation and death.

Among all participants from different geographies, Janssen’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate was 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19. These statistics are incredibly promising and will go a long way to returning society back to some sort of normal in the coming year or so.

The hard work behind a vaccine

While it goes without saying, creating a vaccine is a very complex undertaking. It involves trial and error, and requires everyday citizens to lend their bodies in the hope of landing upon a formula which is not only effective against the disease at hand, but also safe for all to use.

Managing Director of Janssen South Africa, Francisco Plaza, says that the process for the COVID-19 vaccine started in early 2020, as soon as the virus started to spread globally. “Vaccine development is not a new area for Janssen, we have been investing for more than two decades on building our vaccine platform and this platform has proven to be successful in developing other vaccine candidates. For instance, vaccines for Ebola and HIV are currently under clinical development, so we had a good starting point with that platform,” he says.

With a base to work off of, Janssen got to work. While there was an urgency to get a vaccine into production, Plaza admits that there is little point in rushing these projects, as great care is needed to ensure safety and efficacy. When a candidate vaccine was identified, clinical trials started. Again, one cannot rush these things, with the well-being of those participating in the trials of the utmost importance. Thankfully, a successful vaccine was discovered and formulated.

“Clinical research has demonstrated that our vaccine candidate is highly effective against COVID-19 with a single dose. In parallel, Johnson & Johnson has been building our manufacturing capacities to produce as many vaccines as possible, and this has been a global effort, partnering and looking for collaboration with public and private entities,” Plaza, who is a biologist by training, continues.

Another major question that has been on the minds of many since the creation of the vaccine: are pharmaceutical companies going to make the vaccine affordable? While partnerships between countries, continental authorities, and pharmaceutical companies have been created, for Janssen, their biggest commitment from the very start was to be able to help not only on a medical front, but on that of an economic front, too.

“Our guiding principle at Janssen has been to provide an effective vaccine to be distributed globally and to deliver on that commitment, we announced the vaccine will be distributed on a not-for-profit basis, for emergency pandemic use. We are all together in this fight,” Plaza says proudly.

“At Janssen, everything we do begins with innovation, it is at the very heart of our business and we believe there are no limits to what science can do. We will search for the solutions to the medical challenges of our time, and we are consistently entrenched in research and development.”

Apprehension and approval

There has been a worry amongst people that the vaccine was created far too quickly. Those concerns are valid, given that there are many diseases out there which do not have a vaccine or cure. However, Plaza was quick to dispel any fears surrounding what the vaccine is capable of and just how effective it is, even though it took less than a year to develop.

“It has been a titanic effort. Huge investment has been made to be able to deliver a safe and effective vaccine in just one year, but it is important to highlight that it has not been done at the expense of the quality or the safety, as those are our primary objectives,” Plaza, who has been working at Janssen for more than 20 years with experience in sales, marketing, and market access in Europe and in South Africa, insists.

Those above-mentioned fears have put some people off wanting to have the vaccine. Again, this is understandable. What we must remember, though, is that vaccines have been used for generations to eradicate society of issues such as smallpox and polio. They are the only effective tool to manage a pandemic and we would not be on the path to winning the fight against COVID-19 without them.

“The conditional approval that SAHPRA granted to our vaccine candidate in March is such a significant step and together with the approvals by the USFDA, WHO, and the European Medicines Agency, it is testimony of the process that has been followed,” Plaza continues.

“Vaccines have played a major role in eradicating or minimising the impact of diseases in the past and we are confident that with the vaccines being developed against COVID-19, we are now in a better position to control the spread of the disease that has cast such a negative impact on our lives and livelihoods.”

Burning questions

With all the information floating around with regards to COVID-19 vaccines, another big question comes in the shape of the fact that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one shot, as opposed to other vaccines on the market, which require two doses. Plaza was quick to clear up this matter, insisting that having one less shot of a vaccine does not make it any less effective or safe—it all boils down to how it is made.

There are also three key components as to why a one-shot vaccine was the target for Johnson & Johnson.

Plaza explains: “Firstly, we intentionally developed a clinical programme to demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine with one dose. That will facilitate mass vaccination and also will be an efficient way of managing the production that we have during the pandemic phase.”

“The second element is the distribution of the vaccine. The Janssen vaccine is compatible with the standard refrigeration requirements. The third element is affordability, and this is why Johnson & Johnson is committed to distributing the vaccine during the pandemic on a not-for-profit basis.”

With the vaccination programme well underway across the globe, Africa appears to be lagging behind. This is seriously concerning for many, as, on the face of it, more developed countries appear to be prioritised in this regard.

However, while first world countries have received the majority of the vaccines, the problem in Africa boils down to distribution, especially when it comes to transportation and storage.

This is an aspect which is being worked on as a matter of importance, while vaccines have been allocated to Africa, it is now just a matter of waiting for the production to finish.

“We have entered into an agreement with the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust to make available up to 220 million doses of our single dose COVID-19 vaccine to the African Union in 55 member states.

There is also the potential to order an additional 180 million doses, for a combined total of up to 400 million doses.

We need to work closely together to effectively deploy the vaccines and to collaborate with national and super-national entities to effectively deliver vaccination plants. Equitable access is at the centre of what Johnson & Johnson is doing in the COVID-19 response,” Plaza says.

COVID-19 and strong leadership

While Janssen South Africa has been fighting to eradicate COVID-19 through their vaccine programme, they have faced issues like any other company when it comes to the effects of the pandemic. These effects have tested the leadership capabilities of Plaza, but he admits that while it has been difficult, the learnings he has taken away from this last year will only go on to strengthen himself and all he works with.

This time has also allowed Plaza and his team to reflect on those who are most important—the people they serve and the most vulnerable in society.

“This has been a once-in-a-career opportunity. The Johnson & Johnson Foundation and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies have committed more than R18 million to support our health workers and our communities across South Africa, including the provision of protective equipment, additional training, and mental health support. However, our first responsibility is to the patients we serve. During this time, our primary focus has been to continue the labouring of our products for the patients who need them. I think we have done a good job,” he says.

With many of his staff working from home over the last year, the testing of his leadership skills has opened up new doors and created a much more sympathetic work environment. People need to feel appreciated and wanted, especially when away from the office during these uncertain times, and this is something which Plaza has been working on perfecting.

“This has been a time for us to get to know our employees better and understand their personal situations. We implemented flexible HR policies to achieve a good professional and personal balance,” Plaza adds.

When asked about his leadership style, Plaza pointed out that the empowerment of employees is vital in ensuring a steady ship. Key to that is collaboration, while adaptability is important when faced with difficult challenges.

“I would say that during my career, I have learnt that different challenges will work well with different leadership styles, and effective leadership goes with the ability to move from one style to another as the situation requires. But in all those scenarios, helping the teams to reach their maximum potential is always the critical success factor,” the Universidad de Granada graduate concludes.

We as a society should be grateful to Janssen South Africa for the work they have carried out over the last year.

The determination on their part to ensure we overcome this dark period in our history is a testament to the leadership skills of Plaza, and we can look forward to a brighter future thanks to all they have achieved on our behalf.