Marcelo Figueiras, president and owner of Laboratorios Richmond, discusses the pharmaceutical company’s manufacture of the coronavirus vaccine “ Sputnik VIDA ” in Argentina.
Under his leadership earlier this year, Laboratorios Richmond successfully signed an agreement with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, representing the Gamaleya Research Institute, to manufacture the first Latin American version of the Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.
“One of the issues we discussed with President Alberto Fernández when he came to our factory was the need for Argentina to achieve health sovereignty,” said the 57-year-old. Fortuna in an interview.
Laboratorios Richmond is a 90 year nationally funded enterprise. Figueiras bought it over three decades ago. It has developed its activity in the pharmaceutical sector with a portfolio of more than 80 products focused on the antiviral treatment of AIDS, as well as oncological (against cancer), cardiometabolic and neuropsychiatric drugs. And now he goes for the Russian vaccine.
In the current context of a global pandemic, which adds to Argentina’s political and economic uncertainties, there have not been many announcements of private sector investments.
“You invest in the country because you are from here. Authorities in other countries called us when they heard that we were thinking of investing this amount of money – from Paraguay, Uruguay, even Qatar. The whole world is looking for investment, but the reality is to be here and your children are here, ”he says.
“In Argentina, we have a spectacular health system. Of course, hospitals need to be improved and we need to keep investing, but we have a system with world-class professionals. We invest because we consider it fundamental to acquire health sovereignty, ”explains Figueiras.
When do you think Laboratorios Richmond will be able to market Sputnik V in this country?
Our horizon is one year. We’ll have to see the time that goes by and make adjustments, but we have offered to launch it within a year. It is not easy and internally we are trying to speed up and adjust as best we can, but the global context does not facilitate the situation and many items are limited due to the difficulties in international trade that affect production .
For this reason, it is fundamental to understand and increase awareness that the vaccine is important, but only an additional factor to complement the precautions that everyone should take.
These international trade difficulties also prompted many European countries, with the exception of the United States, to start integrating processes that had been outsourced to external markets such as China and India. Do you think world production is changing?
If there is one lesson the pandemic has left us, it is that we need to achieve self-sufficiency in essential inputs and today this is most clearly seen with vaccines. Countries that vaccinate are those that produce vaccines, while those that do not have to wait. And this happens even with the risk that not vaccinating the periphery [such as us] also harms the countries of the center.
The lesson that this leaves us – and the countries of the center have understood this very well – is that we must acquire health sovereignty. Make no mistake, health sovereignty doesn’t mean we have to go out of business or live on our own. Not only is it a utopia, but I consider integration into the world to be fundamental. However, some things are strategic, you have to define them clearly and then maintain them constantly.
Aren’t all the changes in macroeconomic policies going against your long-term vision?
Long-term policies without fluctuations are necessary to enable the development of our industry and others. We cannot have governments that constantly change, open up and then shut down. Clear, long-term policies are needed.
Concretely, what long-term policies does the pharmaceutical sector need?
Our industry’s vision is to ensure patient access to treatment. Nowadays, the treatment is more and more specific and adapted to the individual pathology of each patient and more and more expensive. To give an example, our laboratory has marketed a product for the treatment of hepatitis B that costs approximately US $ 1,500. Until then, the only treatment available was worth over US $ 110,000. What we need is for those who invest and develop products in the country to be supported. But not out of protectionism or privilege, but by ensuring competition under equal conditions.
Now that you are going to produce Sputnik V, how do you analyze the controversy surrounding this Russian vaccine?
Chile has vaccinated many people with most of the vaccines from China. When they started to inoculate, the test results were still not known. Imagine what would have happened here, the whole scandal.
In this sense, I have always said that Argentina had the Instituto Nacional de Medicamentos and AMNAT [Argentina’s equivalent of the Food & Drug Administration] who are the best in the world, irreproachable professionals with many years of experience bringing calm to consumers and laboratories regarding drugs and individual development.
When I saw that they were going to Russia, I said that everything they say to the Institute and to AMNAT was going to be correct. I have always said that and in the end very positive results were published internationally.
Besides vaccine production, what is the next step in your laboratory strategy?
The most important thing is to become regional. We are already looking down from Mexico and the biggest challenge is Brazil because it is very competitive and has internal economies of scale which make it difficult to access this market. There are still some Argentinian laboratories with a very good position there and we are already selling there with a local partner, as well as in North Africa and South-East Asia.
In this sense, our goal with the new factory is to qualify for Europe. It’s part of our five-year plan. Of the US $ 80 million, we have already invested almost half in new product development, biotechnology and clinical studies. In addition, there is the plant in which we will invest an additional $ 15 to 20 million. This investment also shows that we are here to stay.
What we hope for is a macro-level enterprise. I believe that if we come to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and commodity prices continue to rise and the nascent recovery takes hold and gains momentum, macroeconomics could be with us.