Dr P. Roy Vagelos is an eminent figure of the American pharmaceutical community and the Greek diaspora. Born Pindaros Vagelos to Greek immigrants in New Jersey during the Great Depression, he managed, with hard work and perseverance, to achieve success. He trained as a physician at Columbia University and went on to dedicate himself to pharmaceutical science, building a stellar resumé and becoming the head of research and later chairman of the American drugs company Merck.
Vagelos is also renowned for charity work in Africa and China and is hailed for saving millions of lives thanks to the decisions he made as part – and later helmsman – of the Merck team, while he continues to help his alma maters and serve as chairman of Regeneron.
The company is hailed as one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical innovators right now and has earned renown for developing an effective treatment for Ebola. In early July, the New York-based company signed a 450-million-dollar deal with the American government for producing an antibody cocktail for treating Covid-19, which is expected to be ready by late summer or early fall.
In this interview with Kathimerini, Vagelos talks about his fascinating personal journey and the new chapter of his life combating the coronavirus pandemic.
You have been chairman of Regeneron since 1995. How did that come about?
I got a call from my friend Leonard Schleifer, the co-founder and CEO, who introduced me to George Yancopoulos, the other co-founder, who is also an amazing scientist and head of research and development. The company was facing a capital shortfall at the time, but I knew it was a great firm and decided to back it. Their technique for creating antibodies and discovering treatments is one of a kind.
When can we expect an announcement from Regeneron regarding its treatment for Covid-19?
We should know by mid-August if the selected antibodies can really stop the virus. Clinical trials are under way in several American states. The reason we are optimistic is that this is the same team that discovered the effective cocktail of three antibodies against Ebola.
Do you think that science will be able to stop the novel coronavirus from wreaking the kind of destruction seen from other pandemics?
Yes, I believe that science will save the world this time. We will find a cure and it will be distributed to the entire world and this will also help economies reopen and societies get back to normal.
Will you get the vaccination once it’s developed and available?
Of course, I will get it immediately, and I recommend everyone does the same because prevention is the best form of cure. By waiting to be cured you put yourself at risk of being too late, particularly if you are older or have pre-existing conditions.
What is your opinion of Greece’s response to the pandemic?
I think Greece did very well and the government implemented the right policies. [Prime Minister Kyriakos] Mitsotakis did a great job.
Does the coronavirus frighten you?
We’re taking precautions, as a family. We maintain safe distances, don’t attend large gatherings and use masks when we leave the house. We don’t go to restaurants and only order in. Our children take very good care of us.
Do you regard yourself more as a scientist or a businessman?
I am a doctor and everything I do is aimed at safeguarding human health and preserving life. That has always been my number one priority, ever since I went to university. Combating climate change is my second priority. It is a problem that is much greater than the pandemic. We all need to work together, across the world, to deal with it and to discover alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels.
Are you talking about renewable energy sources?
Yes, but more than that because I don’t think humanity’s needs will be met with solar and wind energy. For an Earth with a population of 8 or 9 billion people, we need to explore methods for utilizing every energy source, even nuclear. As temperatures continue to rise, we will get more droughts and food production shortages. It is a huge problem. I act as adviser on such issues at the universities of Columbia and Pennsylvania.
What do you see happening in the US elections in November?
I think that more and more citizens are starting to realize that this president is taking the country down the wrong path, from the climate to healthcare. We are also dealing with the exacerbation of the race problem, as the country has failed to address its history of slavery, which keeps coming to the fore. This is an issue that must be resolved. We also need to find a way to restart the economy that is safe. If these are things the current president cannot do, then the next one should.
You were born at the start of the Great Depression. What were the early years of your life like?
I was born in October 1929 to Greek parents. They were called Herodotus and Marianthe. I was called Pindaros, but because this was hard for the Americans, I kept the P. and added the Roy from my father’s name. My father had come to America from Eressos in Lesvos and worked with his brothers at the Westfield Sweet Shop in Massachusetts. My father later opened up his own restaurant, Estelle, in the town of Rahway in New Jersey. The headquarters of Merck were just a couple of blocks away. Many scientists from Merck would come to our restaurant on their lunch break and talk to us.
Were you a good student?
I was good at algebra, but I have to add that I worked at the restaurant every day. I studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and medicine at Columbia, graduating in 1954. I had met my wife Diana, who hails from Cephalonia, by then and we were married. I spent a decade working at the National Institutes of Health, mainly doing research in cardiology, and then I spent another decade at the University of Washington as head of the Biochemistry Department.
And that takes us to the 1970s and Merck?
Exactly. I got a call from a friend at Merck one day and he said they were looking for a new head of research and development. And that’s how I ended up in 1975 back in the town where I started. My parents were still alive and we were very happy to be living close to each other again.
What did you aspire to accomplish at Merck?
I wanted to use my knowledge in chemistry to discover particles that could be effective in fighting disease. We had quite a few successes. For example, we were the first to study and show the correlation between cholesterol and heart disease. This resulted in the development of Mevacor and later of Zocor, two very effective drugs.
You went on to become chief executive officer of Merck in 1985.
I got this promotion because everyone acknowledged how much the company relied on the discovery and development of new medicines.
In your book “Medicine, Science and Merck” (Cambridge University Press, 2004) you talk about how you combined success with charitable work. Why was this so important to you?
We supplied the drug Ivermectin free of charge to treat river blindness in Africa caused by the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus. Thirty years ago, almost 19 million people lost their sight because of this disease. Our contribution to treating Hepatitis B in China was probably even greater. We had developed the first vaccination using recombinant DNA technology in a jab that protected people from Hepatitis B.
How did you work with China on this?
Back in the 1980s, nearly 9% of the Chinese population had Hepatitis B; we’re talking 120 million people. China sent over scientists and we trained them in our labs. We then gave the Chinese government the technology for producing the vaccine for just 7 million dollars, or the cost of transfer. Now, the rate of infected people there has dropped to below 1%. All of this was possible because we were tremendously successful with many other commercial products and drugs. In 1987, Merck was named by Fortune magazine as the Number 1 Most Admired Company, a title we kept for seven years.
Given the number of things you’re involved in, you have never really retired.
That is true, really. It is possible that I work just as much now as I did at Merck, and that is wonderful. I dedicate a good part of my time to Columbia University’s School of Medicine. I am the head of the team of the university’s advisers and I help them find funding for the different programs they carry out. I am also active at the University of Pennsylvania and especially on issues related to climate change. My wife and I help fund certain workshops as well as many students through scholarships and other forms of support.
So, is never retiring the secret to a long and happy life?
The greatest secret to having a long life is “choosing” parents with good genes. The second most important thing is to find a form of exercise that suits you and to do it almost every day. I’ve found tennis. The problem now, of course, is that it’s not just my kids beating me, but also my grandkids.
Do you visit Greece at all?
We travel to Greece quite regularly, visiting Lesvos and Cephalonia as we have family on both islands. We go everywhere, seeing all the places we want to see in Greece, and always have such a wonderful time.
What would your advice be to a young person just embarking on a career in science?
My entire life has been dedicated to science and medicine, and I think that a career in medicine can be incredibly exciting and creative. I like people who decide to train in science and technology so that they can better understand the world around them. In my opinion, of course, there is nothing better than a career in the health sciences. At the same time, though, we need a lot of scientists and engineers to work in the field of climate, because if we don’t take action, the Earth will become too hot by the end of the century and the human population will gradually become extinct. Not everyone needs to become an engineer, of course, but we need enough smart people to become engaged in those fields.