Race against time: Helping the Netherlands secure almost 20 million Pfizer vaccines
The whole world is waiting anxiously for sufficient supplies of coronavirus vaccines. As Launch Navigator at Pfizer, alumnus Dennis de Mik must help ensure that the Netherlands receives 19.8 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. How is he going about this and how has his Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences programme at Leiden University benefitted him?
‘We're working very hard to ship more and more vaccines to the Netherlands’
What is your role at Pfizer?
‘Our vaccine is produced in different phases and at various sites in Europe, and globally we are talking about some two billion vaccines this year. Together with my colleagues, I will ensure that the Netherlands gets its fair share, which is 19.8 million doses. To do this, we have a medical team, a logistics team and a commercial team. I’m the intermediary who has to make these teams work together seamlessly. We’re working very hard to ship more and more vaccines to the Netherlands so they can then be distributed to people at locations such as nursing homes, hospitals and large-scale vaccination sites.’
The Netherlands started vaccinating relatively late, given that the Pfizer vaccine was already in the country on 27 December. What do you think of that?
‘The roll-out is not in our hands but is being organised by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. They are responsible for distributing the vaccine in the Netherlands. They opted for thorough preparation and were ready to start from 6 January. A successful vaccination campaign is best for everyone, and that is what we are committed to. The Netherlands is now moving up to the middle among European countries.’
How have the past few months been?
‘It’s been an exciting time because everyone is watching and you want to do it right. From the moment in 2020 that Pfizer partnered with BioNTech, the German company that developed the vaccine, the race against time began. A lot had to be done, such as researching safety and effectiveness, setting up production sites and arranging for submission to the European Medicines Agency. Then we started preparing the roll-out in the various countries. I translated this for the Dutch situation and held many discussions with the Ministry and the RIVM. Based on all the information, it was possible to decide which groups could be vaccinated first.’
How was Pfizer able to achieve large-scale production so quickly?
‘Processes that normally take years or months were carried out in much shorter time frames. The various phases of research into safety and effectiveness overlapped. Everything that needed to be done was done, but under extreme time pressure because we are in this intense pandemic. For me personally, that meant very long work weeks of 60 hours or more. And yes, that means, for example, that I am often on national and international calls in the evenings, in the weekends and in periods like the Christmas holidays. Of course, my family understands the necessity and I’m proud to be able to do my part in this pandemic.’
‘Everything that needed to be done was done, but under extreme time pressure’
What are you working on now?
‘We’re still in close contact with the Ministry and the RIVM because new information is becoming available all the time, now that more people have been vaccinated. For example, we hear about possible side effects. And all kinds of studies are ongoing, such as research into the consequences of postponing the second injection. For this, our medical department is looking especially at what’s happening in Israel and England because those countries are leading the way in vaccination coverage.’
What were you doing before COVID-19 took over the world?
‘I’ve been working at Pfizer for almost seven years now. I was involved in the roll-out of a new drug for breast cancer and two drugs for lung cancer. I deal with approval procedures and make sure that the medicines get to the patients. Previously, I did the same for Roche, where I was also involved in the launch of new cancer drugs and maintained relationships with patient groups. It’s fascinating what you can do with applied science. That you understand how a disease works, how a drug should act on it and what it really means to the lives of thousands or millions of people.’
Students during a study trip in Sweden. Why did you choose to study Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences in Leiden?
‘I wanted to do something with applied chemistry and biology, and you can only do this programme in Leiden. From day one, I cycled to the Gorlaeus building with a smile and I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. It teaches you to speak the language of both doctors and researchers, which allows you to work together on the process of developing medicines. Lab research is fascinating, but I noticed that very detailed research did not move fast enough for me; I would rather contribute to the phase in which a medicine becomes available. That’s why I chose the Science-Based Business specialisation during my studies: to learn more about management and the economic side.’
In addition to your work, you are also a volunteer at Xenia, a hospice in Leiden for young people who are often terminally ill. Why did you want to do this?
‘When the hospice was built at Kloosterpoort in 2014, I was living around the corner and was immediately interested. Now I have been a volunteer there for more than six years. As a host, I welcome the temporary residents and their guests. I make them feel at home, make coffee, bake apple pie and answer the phone. I also help with marketing and PR because the hospice cannot exist without donors. floorwalking through the doors of a healthcare facility puts me in touch with the people we’re doing this all for. It gives me a better idea of what medicine and care can mean.’
Text: Linda van Putten
Who: Dennis de Mik (39)
Programme: Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences (1999-2005)
Student life: ‘I was a member of Catena for one year, but I quickly realised that I got enough out of my study association, for which I did a lot. As a student ambassador, I also tried to make other students enthusiastic about this programme. To this day, I still see a lot of my former classmates and I even met my wife through the programme.’