PROFILE: Zwelethu Bashman’s MSD is fighting Covid and cancer
New MSD boss Zwelethu Bashman is driven by the need to find new ways to fight Covid and a vision to not just treat, but prevent cancer
Zwelethu Bashman, the recently appointed SA and Sub-Saharan region MD of international health-care and pharmaceuticals group MSD, starts his tenure at a time when research into medication and vaccines to combat the Covid pandemic has become a global necessity.
He takes over as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported on September 29 that 2,106 new Covid cases have brought the total number of laboratory confirmed cases to 2,900,994.
Bashman joined MSD in January 2020 as business unit director for HIV/Aids. In November 2020 he was appointed MD, taking over from Dr Priya Agrawal, who became chief behavioural science officer in global vaccines in the company’s international operations.
Bashman recalls that his official start date was February 2021, "but these things happen — when you are announced to take over a new role, you [can be] immediately thrust into the requirements. It feels like I have been doing it for years now."
Bashman, the son of a priest, studied biomedical technology at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha. After graduating, he entered the pharmaceutical industry.
He has had an extensive career in the industry in different roles that stretch over 16 years, starting at Schering-Plough in 2006.
In 2009, that company merged with MSD. Bashman plans to bring his strengths to his new role as MD. These include an understanding of the African pharmaceutical market, as he has worked in the sector in Tanzania and travelled across the continent, learning about challenges and opportunities.
MSD, which has a commercial presence in about 35 countries on the African continent, focuses on innovation in therapeutic areas such as HIV, oncology, vaccines, infectious diseases and antivirals.
The company’s focus on oncology, a branch of medicine that deals with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, is in the innovation and supply of human papillomavirus vaccines.
"We have a vision to eradicate cervical cancer. We are moving from just treating cancer to preventing it," he says, adding that almost one-third of deaths from cervical cancer occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has only 14% of the world’s women.
Bashman says MSD has active programmes treating cervical cancer across 13 out of the 35 countries it operates in, but these were disrupted by the Covid pandemic.
"Covid has completely turned the world upside down and I am proud of how the industry has come to the fore and relied on science to get the world to [a] form of normality.
"We cannot run away from the Covid pandemic. This has forced MSD to pivot quickly from a strategic perspective of the organisation because we always commit to focusing where we can have the biggest impact."
Bashman says the company believes vaccinations remain the most effective public health intervention in saving lives and promoting good health.
"This has been proven historically through various other issues in public health that we have dealt with through vaccinations."
He says in terms of augmenting global efforts in the fight against Covid, MSD is focusing on an investigation for an antiviral drug called Molnupiravir.
"It does not replace vaccinations, but we see it as working hand in hand with them. It’s currently in the phase three clinic trial stage for the treatment of nonhospitalised patients with confirmed Covid," says Bashman.
MSD has already had three engagements with the parliamentary portfolio committee on health and is committed to keeping the ministry of health informed on the progress on its clinical trials of Molnupiravir.
"We believe MSD and the government share the view that an effective treatment, in addition to vaccinations and all other safety protocols, could prove critical in the national strategy to combat Covid and reduce pressure on the health-care system and, most importantly, prevent unnecessary deaths," says Bashman.
He says the move towards National Health Insurance (NHI) provides an opportunity to broaden patient access to all those who are in need, irrespective of their economic status. "We must make sure that there is a clear and viable path for people to gain access to innovative medicines with NHI."
Outside his work environment, Bashman is a rugby enthusiast — he won a rugby scholarship to Nelson Mandela University. He plays golf and spends quality time with his wife, his seven-year-old son and his 14-year-old daughter.
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