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2024-06-11| InterviewsSpecial

Advancing Healthcare Accessibility and Sustainable Development

by Richard Chau
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Merck KGaA (Merck), a multinational science and technology company with an illustrious history of 356 years, currently covers business across three major sectors, namely, Healthcare, Life Sciences and Electronics with an active presence in 65 countries. Merck places special emphasis on its strong operations within the APAC region, which includes 11 key markets such as Australia, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, meanwhile demonstrating a significant presence in China and Japan as well. GeneOnline is honored to have Alexandre de Muralt, Merck Healthcare’s APAC Senior Vice President, for an interview. With his passion for the region and ample managerial experience, de Muralt reached his current position in July 2023, leading a vibrant team of 1,200 people with a vision of making Merck Healthcare’s products more accessible to patients with unmet medical needs across the region. The interview not only highlights Merck’s APAC strategic priorities and initiatives in improving healthcare accessibility, but also aims to discover the company’s commitments and ongoing efforts in pursuing sustainable development goals.

The interview opened with a discussion of Merck’s vision to enhance its presence in the APAC region and de Muralt began with a strong statement: “Our purpose is to create, improve, and prolong life.” In fact, from fertility solutions aiding parenthood aspirations to treatments for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, thyroid disorders and cancers, the company has gained a regional competitive edge with its diverse and holistic portfolios. Notably, Merck’s dedication to addressing unique medical needs distinguishes it in the industry, with a keen focus on both creating new solutions and enhancing existing treatments.

Related article: Connecting the Dots: TCELS Leads the Way for Thailand’s Life Sciences and Healthcare Innovations 

Tailored Approaches for Local Realities, Bridging Gaps to Healthcare Accessibility

As de Muralt elaborates, the APAC region’s healthcare landscape is marked by cultural, linguistic, and systemic diversity. Navigating these diverse healthcare ecosystems, Merck tailors its corporate strategies to meet specific market needs. From reimbursement healthcare systems in markets like Taiwan, Korea and Australia to markets that focus on a predominantly out-of-pocket expenses ecosystem, Merck adapts its approach to ensure accessibility and availability of its drugs . 

Understanding the varying prevalence of diseases, Merck prioritizes its therapeutic focus; for example, Oncology in Taiwan, where tumor types such as head and neck, gastric and colorectal cancer are relatively more prevalent while focusing on cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and thyroid issues in markets where the diagnostic rates are still alarming. In particular, de Muralt shared insights into Merck’s programs addressing critical gaps in disease diagnosis and treatment, citing hypothyroidism in Indonesia as an example. In comparison to Australia, where the diagnosis rate of hypothyroidism is around 80%, not more than 3% of cases are diagnosed in Indonesia. To address this situation, the company collaborates with local healthcare stakeholders in raising public awareness, improving diagnosis for high-risk individuals and screening for congenital hypothyroidism in pregnant women and newborns, as well as providing easier access to essential treatments through affordable pricing. 

Moreover, following the success of pilot testing in Indonesia, Merck intends to extend this effort to other countries facing the challenge of underdiagnosis of hypothyroidism, illustrating its determination to bridge healthcare disparities and enhance patient outcomes across diverse regional contexts.

Advancing APAC Clinical Trials and Research

The interview also shed light on Merck’s plan to advance clinical research and development in the APAC region, driven by the region’s huge and burgeoning population as well as its unique disease landscape thanks to variations in genetic and lifestyle factors. According to de Muralt, Merck recognizes the necessity of engaging diverse populations in clinical trials to validate the safety and efficacy of its medications. Leveraging Asia’s robust scientific ecosystem, dedicated R&D hubs in Japan and China, and teams of local clinical and medical affairs experts in key markets such as Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, the company is actively pursuing trials in the APAC region and enrolling Asian patients to align with regulatory requirements. De Muralt stressed that Merck strategically focuses on oncology, immunology, and neurology, aiming to deliver breakthrough and first-in-class therapies to address unmet medical needs in these therapies.

Leading Merck APAC to a New Height with Past Lessons Learned

Given de Muralt’s rich experience in the APAC healthcare market through his long career in locations such as Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, the interview also explored how he would leverage his past successes to guide Merck’s development in the region. Originated from an academic background rooted in political sciences and social anthropology, blended with extensive global exposure through having lived in nine countries, de Muralt upholds the belief that a workplace culture of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is essential in shaping Merck’s APAC operational strategy. Through his statement “Diversity is not just about gender. It’s also about culture, age, experience and the feeling of belonging,” de Muralt stressed the importance of drawing on the unique perspectives of both younger and older generations, as well as the expertise of people from various backgrounds to create a cohesive environment and spur innovation and growth within the company. 

Drawing from his experiences in diverse market archetypes across countries, de Muralt also explained Merck’s strategic approach tailored to specific healthcare environments. From countries with limited healthcare reimbursement to fully reimbursed markets, Merck’s regional strategy is underpinned by strategic thinking and collaboration with local stakeholders, allowing the company to identify unique opportunities and formulate tailored plans for each market.

Tackling Demographic Challenges Through Collaborative Initiatives

Talking about the demographic issues faced by many APAC countries, de Muralt particularly mentioned the sub-replacement birth rates in countries including Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. “Normally we need 2.1 children born per woman to regenerate the population. However, in these markets, sometimes their birth rates are even below one. That means a real challenge.” Recognizing the economic and healthcare implications of declining populations, Merck has launched the “Fertility Counts” initiative as an attempt to address the societal impact of low birth rates. 

The campaign began with a report with the support of Economist Impact, which assessed governmental measures of different countries regarding the issue and their effectiveness. Then, by engaging with governments, academia, and private sector partners, Merck actively seeks to stimulate discussions and provide feasible solutions. “We believe that creating this private-public partnership is particularly important. Through the Fertility Counts initiative, we differentiate ourselves by bringing thinking and solutions that the government can consider applying in their legislature,” said de Muralt.

Alexandre de Muralt, Merck Healthcares APAC Senior Vice President
In an exclusive interview, Alexandre de Muralt, Merck Healthcare’s APAC Senior Vice President, mentioned the company’s strategies and initiatives in advancing accessible healthcare and sustainable development. (Source: GeneOnline)

Going Beyond Emission Reduction, Pioneering a Sustainable Future

With the rising awareness of sustainable development in recent years, the implementation of ESG concepts and sustainability practices has become a key to future corporate viability. During the interview, de Muralt emphasized Merck’s multifaceted approach in this aspect, pointing out that “the concept of sustainability goes way beyond just carbon emissions. Importantly, among others it is about ensuring people’s access to healthcare.”

Apart from reiterating Merck’s initiatives such as Fertility Counts and efforts to address thyroid issues for driving equity in healthcare access across diverse demographics, de Muralt also noted the importance of a balance between incentivizing research investment and enabling timely healthcare delivery. “Ensuring a fair reward for innovation is important. But at the same time, ensuring speed of access to patients is another key mission,” he said.

Concerning emission reduction, Merck’s sustainability efforts encompass internal behavioral changes alongside strategic partnerships to reduce carbon footprints and promote green practices across the pharma supply chain. de Muralt highlighted actions to optimize shipping efficiency by collaborating with other pharma companies and transportation and distributor partners , thereby minimizing energy consumption and space utilization. Additionally, Merck is keen on exploring eco-friendly packaging solutions and encouraging patients to adopt more efficient medical delivery systems to reduce waste. In real-world terms, in 2022, for example, Merck reduced CO2 impact by 12% and shaved 750 tons of carbon off its distribution footprint in six APAC countries through collaboration with its distribution partners, being equivalent to 840,000 pounds of coal burned. 

Furthermore, according to de Muralt, as a family-owned enterprise spanning over three centuries through 13 generations, the Merck family has been upholding their commitment to hand over the company in better shape to future generations, driving Merck’s relentless pursuit of eco-friendly practices and zero emissions within a defined timeframe as part of its priorities.

Strengthening APAC Presence with Diversity, Technology and Sustainability

The APAC region spans over 30 countries with massive populations and is incredibly diverse in terms of economies, cultures, biopharma development, as well as genetic characteristics and healthcare needs of the populations. To gain a foothold in this unique market landscape, biopharma companies need to provide products and services geared to the characteristics of different countries in the region. Meanwhile, recognizing the pharma industry’s significant contributions to carbon emissions, developing innovative solutions aligned with the net-zero trend and supporting sustainable development are also key to corporate success in the region.

Overall, the interview illustrates how Merck Healthcare is leveraging its versatile portfolio and collaborating with the public and private sectors to address specific health issues in different APAC countries. Also, Merck is actively driving sustainable development and improving healthcare accessibility. This multifaceted, ESG-inspired business strategy helps Merck strengthen its regional footprint and can serve as an inspiring model for biopharma companies seeking to expand their APAC operations.

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