- Pfizer is hiring William Pao, currently Roche’s head of pharmaceutical research and early development, to serve as its chief development officer and executive vice president. Pao will replace Rod McKenzie, who is retiring after 35 years at Pfizer, effective March 21, the company announced Tuesday.
- Roche will backfill Pao’s role by moving Johannes Clevers, a professor in molecular genetics at University Utrecht, from its board of directors, to which he’d been appointed in 2019. Clevers’ seat on the board will be filled at a later date, Roche said.
- Before joining Roche, Pao had served in various roles, including oncology chair at Vanderbilt University, where among other achievements he had been involved in early research on the AstraZeneca lung cancer drug Tagrisso. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said his background makes Pao “the ideal leader to continue our pursuit of both cutting-edge science and breakthrough medicines and vaccines.”
The move thrusts Pao even more into the spotlight given his new role will involve supporting two of the highest-profile pharmaceutical products in the world, the COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty and the antiviral Paxlovid. Together, Wall Street analysts forecast sales of those two products could exceed $50 billion in 2022.
At Roche, Pao was recruited to head up the company’s Switzerland-based pharmaceutical research and early development group, or pRED, which had a reputation for underperforming compared to Roche’s U.S.-based subsidiary Genentech, the birthplace of such pioneering drugs as Avastin and Herceptin.
In 2020, one of pRED’s drugs, called Evrysdi, became the first oral medicine approved to treat spinal muscular atrophy, a disabling and often fatal condition in infants and children. And then last week, Vabysmo, another of the group’s medicines and a follow-on to the lucrative eye treatment Lucentis, gained U.S. clearance.
Other candidates from pRED have shown promise as well, including glofitamab, a lymphoma drug, and gantenerumab, an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s disease the company is testing in a late-stage study that could yield results later this year.
The portfolio awaiting Pao at Pfizer will include similar therapeutic areas like infectious diseases, neuroscience, immunology, blood disorders and rare disease. Pfizer has also invested heavily in gene therapy, an area Roche is exploring as well through its acquisition of Spark Therapeutics.
Pfizer has undergone a substantial transformation over the past decade. The pharma lost patent protection for what was then the top-selling drug product in the world, Lipitor, in 2011, a setback that equated to about $8 billion in lost annual revenue. In subsequent years, the company began relying on a wider array of medicines and invested in building a broader pipeline of experimental candidates.
Pao will be expected to further this strategy, especially as investors start to pay attention to Pfizer’s longer-term outlook and how it plans to use profits from its COVID-19 vaccine.
“Building on this strong momentum, I am honored to assume the leadership of Pfizer’s global product development organization to help bring the next transformative medicines to the world faster,” Pao said in a statement.