An Interview with Margie McGlynn

The new chief executive officer of IAVI, the second in its history, discusses her career in vaccine development and deployment and her vision for the organization

By Kristen Jill Kresge

On July 7, Margaret (Margie) McGlynn was appointed president and chief executive officer (CEO) of IAVI,replacing IAVI’s founding president and CEO, Seth Berkley, who left at the end of June after 15 years to become CEO of the GAVI Alliance, a Geneva-based organization that works to increase access to immunizations in developing countries.

McGlynn was no stranger to IAVI, having served on its board of directors since July 2010. She has extensive experience in both the vaccine and HIV fields, culled from a 26-year career at Merck. During that time, she held several positions in the company, culminating in the post as head of Merck’s global vaccines and infectious diseases business. In this role, she oversaw the launch of four new vaccines, including Gardasil, the first vaccine developed to prevent infection with several of the most prevalent strains of human papilloma virus that can lead to cervical cancer, as well as the first integrase inhibitor to treat HIV. McGlynn also played a pivotal role in ensuring access to these vaccines in developing countries, which typically are introduced many years after they are available in rich countries.

McGlynn describes herself as a “driven but compassionate executive,” and looks forward to the challenges of her new role. In her limited free time, the mother of a 20-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter enjoys sailing and skiing with her husband and children.

What personal experiences have been most influential in shaping the person you are today?

I grew up in a family that owned a retail pharmacy, so I was always very interested in medicines and vaccines. I also grew up in a family that had two children with a rare genetic disease, and so I was very focused as a young child on what new therapies could be developed for my sisters to help keep them alive, which unfortunately did not happen.

I also was told the story as a young child about a brother that I never got to meet because he passed away from measles in the early 1950s. As new vaccines started to come out in the ’60s, my parents would bring us to immunization clinics and I asked why I had to get this needle injected in my arm and was told the story about Timmy, and how if the vaccine had been available when he was alive they wouldn’t have lost this infant at the age of 18 months. So I grew up with a keen interest in vaccines.

How did this influence your career decisions?

I decided to go to pharmacy school and focus on how I could do what my father did—be involved in helping people through medications and vaccines—but I decided to double major in business because I wanted to make an even bigger impact. I didn’t know exactly how I would do it, but I applied for an internship in the pharmaceutical industry and I was hired by Merck for a summer. It took me about a week to realize that if I wanted to make a really big impact on as broad a population as possible, playing a role in a pharmaceutical company, especially a company like Merck that was focused on unmet medical needs, innovation, and science, but also access programs and philanthropic work, was a great fit for me.

I joined Merck in 1983 and I had many opportunities over a 26-year career there to get very involved in bringing out new medicines and vaccines, as well as making sure that they were accessible to the people who needed them most.

What were the highlights of your long career at Merck?

The most rewarding part of my career was when I ran Merck’s global vaccines business my last four years there. To bring out a vaccine to prevent rotavirus-induced gastroenteritis when there were 500,000 infants dying every year of this disease in the developing world brought me great satisfaction. But it was very important to me that we not only introduce this vaccine, but that we do so quickly in the developing world. We worked with the government of Nicaragua to introduce rotavirus vaccine in that country within eight months of the US introduction of the vaccine. We provided the vaccine free for every infant born in Nicaragua over a three-year period, and we achieved a higher immunization rate in Nicaragua, over 90%, than we achieved in the US after two years on the market.

I also played a major role in Merck’s no-profit pricing strategy for vaccines and HIV therapies in the world’s lowest income markets, and in an effort to assure vaccines were developed specifically for the developing world’s needs, I worked with others at Merck and the Wellcome Trust to establish a partnership to create a vaccine research center for the developing world in India.

That center is named after the vaccine pioneer, Maurice Hilleman. Did you get to know him well while at Merck?

I did. Maurice was a very inspirational, innovative, and effective scientist. I was fortunate in the last few years of my career to spend more time with him and we would just have fascinating conversations about vaccines. His motto was to always do something useful, and I thought about that when I had the opportunity to take on this role at IAVI.

What was it like inside Merck when the results from the company’s Phase IIb AIDS vaccine trial, known as STEP, showed that the candidate was not effective?

I remember waiting for a phone call one particular evening that I knew the data safety monitoring board would be meeting. I expected that most likely the phone call would tell me that the trial was continuing and that there wasn’t enough data to make any other decision. We were prepared for the optimistic scenario that we’d have enough evidence to say we have proof of concept. But we knew that was very, very unlikely. And while we had a draft press release ready for what we thought to be the very unlikely scenario that the trial would be stopped, I never imagined that that would be the phone call I would receive. I was devastated. I understood the significance of what this meant, not only to the individuals and countries who were so hopeful that a vaccine would be coming, but also to the entire HIV vaccine field. I spent a lot of time on the communication plans because I knew how important it was that we were fully open and transparent, and especially that we shared information with other scientific partners who could help us comprehensively analyze the data, learn what we could from the trial, and apply what we learned to any future development.

So how has the transition to being CEO of IAVI gone so far?

There’s a lot to accomplish and I don’t expect to be fully up to speed immediately, but I’m thrilled with the experience thus far. I’ve had great mentors and advisors within the organization, on the board of directors, and externally. I really believe IAVI has made a huge impact in the past, and I believe we can make an even bigger impact in the future. I feel like the ultimate goal is in sight.

I look forward to attending the AIDS Vaccine conference in Bangkok, where I think it will all come together and I’ll be meeting many external stakeholders and get an even better grasp of the full pipeline of HIV vaccine projects.

As CEO, you will oversee the introduction of a new strategic plan for IAVI. At this point, what can you say about the key elements of that plan?

Our strategic plan is still in development and will be for a number of months as I make sure there is extensive external stakeholder input into the plan, but there are already a few key components. The first is how can IAVI add the greatest value to the field, and how can IAVI be a partner of choice and contribute in whatever way makes the most sense to any HIV vaccine development effort that’s underway. A second component is figuring how we can make IAVI’s tremendous capabilities in translational research more broadly available for the field. A third component is to ensure that we continue to develop our clinical trials infrastructure in Africa so that we develop the cohorts that are needed and continue to engage the most affected [individuals] so that we someday have an effective vaccine available to those who need it the most.

What do you think will be the biggest obstacles for IAVI in the coming years?

Certainly a major obstacle for any global health organization is funding, given the economic issues that we’ve had for the past few years and may have for the next few years. The challenge is how we ensure that we’re able to secure adequate funding to continue to make adequate progress to achieve our mission.