A Legacy of Helping to Address Viral Pandemics
John Sayre - May 19, 2020 - 3 min read
When I was in college, I learned about the Spanish Flu in a class on the history of medicine. I found the pandemic so fascinating that I reached out to my grandmother Cordelia to ask her about it. She was about 80 by then but still remembered it vividly. She described driving through a neighborhood in Akron, Ohio at the age of 15 and seeing people throwing furniture out of an attic window. Everyone in the house had died, and they were burning everything inside to kill the germs.
I didn’t have to wait long to experience a pandemic myself. I graduated from college in 1984, just one year after HIV was discovered. I was an ICU nurse working at Mt. Zion hospital in San Francisco, and the ICU was always full. Similar to what we are seeing today with COVID-19, people were coming in with respiratory distress and dying. It was terrifying.
I came to Gilead in 1997 because I was inspired by the possibility of being able to help address a public health crisis. I worked on Tamiflu and greatly enjoyed talking to my grandmother about my job. At the time, I thought it was very forward-thinking of Gilead to focus on a treatment that could potentially be used in a pandemic. And then, in the midst of Tamiflu’s development, the H5N1 outbreak hit, and with it, requests for compassionate use.
What I’ve learned during my 23 years at Gilead is that we are a company uniquely positioned to treat viral pandemics. It’s something we’ve focused on since Gilead was founded more than three decades ago. Our relentless pursuit of science has never wavered, and it’s why we have been able to help make incredible progress in the treatment of several serious diseases. As my career progressed, I found it especially empowering to be able to work on our HIV treatments and PrEP medications. I have seen firsthand how destructive HIV can be, and I’m still amazed that we have been able to help transform what used to be a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition for many people, as well as help prevent new infections.
Today with the COVID-19 global health crisis, we find ourselves in an eerily similar situation with many frightening parallels to HIV. We’ve seen countless deaths around the world, and with this comes fear, uncertainty and the potential for misinformation. Socioeconomic inequalities, health disparities and stigma are also unfortunately playing a role in pandemic. Frontline hospital employees are again experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment.
Gilead is committed to playing a role in addressing all of these issues – but first and foremost, we believe we can help the world understand how to attack this virus through our incredible depth of antiviral knowledge. I know I speak for everyone at Gilead as well as our partners when I say it’s been an amazing privilege to be part of this massive, global effort to help advance the development of potential treatment options for COVID-19. History is repeating itself before our eyes, and while our past success is no guarantee, it’s nonetheless evidence that we are well-positioned and dedicated to playing a role in ending this pandemic.
John Sayre retired from Gilead in 2020. He was Senior Vice President of Development Operations.