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Pfizer scientist-strategist, Amit Srivastava, on vaccines and pandemics

Amit Srivastava: Senior Director at Pfizer

This episode is actually two conversations in one!  Nick’s initial interview with Dr. Amit Srivastava, which focused on Amit’s scientific training and career in business, was cut off suddenly by an internet malfunction in the studio.  At their next opportunity to continue the conversation (one week later), the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip America’s national discourse. Amit shares his insights into SARS-CoV-2, especially the technical and logistical considerations which will go into developing a vaccine for it (this second conversation begins approximately 1h04m into the episode).

Developing Vaccines

While he is not directly involved in any of the efforts to combat SARS-CoV-2, Amit does know a lot about vaccine development.  He is a Senior Director at Pfizer, focusing on medical development, scientific affairs, and clinical affairs for meningococcal vaccines at Pfizer.  Amit jokes that his job, which involves authoring studies on potential vaccines and bringing them to the relevant public health authorities, is “about as academic as you can get in a pharmaceutical company.”

Vaccine development doesn’t just require biochemical problem solving to maximize an antigen’s immunogenicity; it also requires knowledge about public health and epidemiology.  “You have to understand the disease burden and you have to decide which population you want to vaccinate” before you can make a vaccine, according to Amit. Many diseases are caused by a heterogenous group of pathogens which respond differently to distinct vaccine products (for example, influenza vaccines are adjusted each year according to what experts predict to be the most prevalent strains).  One issue is that, historically, it has been difficult to modify vaccines in response to rapidly changing disease conditions. Amit says that “In parallel to the clinical process, there is a manufacturing process which is highly regulated and needs to be approved,” locking manufacturers into a particular process and product. With this in mind he’s excited about a new generation of vaccines (including some of those which are being developed to inoculate against COVID-19) that use lipid-packaged DNA or RNA which is translated into the appropriate antigen by the inoculated person’s own ribosomal machinery.  The advantage of these products is that they can be manufactured more quickly and flexibly than traditional vaccines.

From Bench to Business

While he was originally trained as a scientist, Amit also spent many years in the world of business.  A decade ago he decided to leave his position as a Research Faculty member at Boston Children’s Hospital.  He explains that decision simply: “People in academia always have a grand question, and they tackle little pieces of it.  I didn’t have that. I didn’t see the same level of motivation and definition as I did in my friends and colleagues. And at the same time, I realized that was OK.” He decided to enter the world of business, first joining a biotech startup, then working at Boston Consulting Group.

Nick (also a former employee of BCG) and Amit discuss the difficulties each of them had when they first started as consultants.  While PhD programs provide excellent training for some aspects of the job, there is always a steep learning curve for those who don’t have prior experience working in business.  Amit’s tenacity paid dividends, though; he learned skills which would become cornerstones of his career in vaccine development, most especially how to communicate effectively in a business environment.

We need to apply our training in order to understand the situation and then communicate it to the world in a humble and graceful manner.

Amit Srivastava on how scientists can help fight COVID-19

While Amit loved working at BCG, he knew that he wanted to pursue a career where he could utilize more of his scientific knowledge.  He also wanted to focus on one of the problems that got him interested in science in the first place: treating infectious diseases in the developing world.  Growing up in India, he knew many people whose lives were affected by treatable diseases such as polio and smallpox. He accepted a position at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he worked to develop vaccines which protect against pneumonia, one of the leading causes of mortality among children in developing countries.  He managed the Foundation’s capital investments in the field, forging partnerships with several companies to develop and deploy novel pneumococcal vaccines, including one which has since been licensed and approved by the WHO.  

At the end of the conversation, Amit gives Nick’s listeners his thoughts on how scientists can help fight COVID-19: “We all, by virtue of scientific training, understand how to interpret and communicate data.  We can all contribute to evidence-based discourse. We need to apply our training in order to understand the situation and then communicate it to the world in a humble and graceful manner.”

Amit’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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