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Interview with Dr María Tarragona

"The HIPRA vaccine project is a big challenge and very exciting. I had never been in a project with such a degree of involvement, and with that scope. We live it with a lot of heart and with a lot of emotion "


Dr María Tarragona, Market Access Senior Manager at HIPRA. Member and ambassador of the Red Mujeres Farma community

Tell us about the Red Mujeres Farma (Pharma Women’s Network) community, of which you are an ambassador. What are your goals?

The community was founded by Anna Blanch, who saw an opportunity to set up this innovative network in the sector. I discovered it on Linkedin through a survey the group did to evaluate the role of women in the pharmaceutical sector. It featured questions like “what works best in your sector?”, “what things could be changed?”, and so on. I contacted her and she needed ambassadors, women with careers in the sector who could raise awareness about the project, share news, and help the community out, so I signed up!
The community has only been around for six months and is still in its initial stages. It was founded upon three basic pillars of work: sharing content that could be of interest; giving visibility with role models, a task that we ambassadors do; and, finally, creating new content, starting with the publication of the Gender Diversity report in 2021.
You can find information on the community’s website, articles published on its blog, and follow its activity on social networks through its Linkedin account.

What does the Gender Diversity report cover in general?

The report highlights that women have a significant presence in the pharmaceutical sector, although perhaps greater parity is lacking on the executive boards, depending on a given company’s characteristics (whether it is a multinational or more family owned and operated). The report also notes that 71% of individuals surveyed believe that there are equal opportunities in the sector in terms of the possibilities of having a discrimination-free career. I think I can confirm both points through my personal experience in the companies in which I have worked (Otsuka Pharmaceutical, Novartis, Pierre-Fabre, and now HIPRA), as well as through seeing the support given to other women towards their development.

The other noteworthy point in the report is the issue of challenges concerning work-life balance, an area where much remains to be improved. The pharmaceutical sector requires countless hours of dedication (travel, project execution times, etc.), and this is the most pressing concern. Now, with the pandemic and teleworking becoming normal, it looks like things have improved, especially for people who work in more innovative areas.

I think that if we really want to improve the presence of women in the sector, in a comprehensive and equitable manner, work-life balance is fundamental and we really must improve it. With this in mind, multinationals such as Roche and Novartis have implemented very innovative policies that are currently working successfully.

You began your university education at IQS. What do you remember from your time at the school?

I have fantastic memories! Although I’m not proud of it, it took me three years to finish the first academic year. One of the things my time at IQS taught me was to change the ways I studied and how to approach problems. The beginning was very frustrating, but after a good time of learning along the way, I made a radical change. I managed to advance to the second academic year and it became a bit less difficult each year even though there were subjects, such as programming, that required tons of hours of studying to make them understandable. The effort I put forth helped me change the way I approach problems and challenges. I’ve been able to apply all this later on in many aspects of life and be able to successfully handle complicated situations.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was in primary school, and the doctors told my parents that it would probably be very difficult for me to pursue a degree because of my learning disabilities. My parents instilled the belief in me that a task can be challenging to one degree or another, but never impossible. Many of my classmates “threw in the towel” and dropped out of university. But I said I would earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at IQS and I did it! Definitely!

I have great memories of my classmates and I made incredible friends, a core of friendships like a family that I’ll keep forever. I’ve run into IQS alumni everywhere I go, and it’s really easy to connect with them. Another interesting titbit is that I ran into Dr Josep Lluís Falcó again, my first infinitesimal calculus professor, and we’ve started working together on a project. I’m really excited about it!

After your studies at IQS, you spent time at other prestigious centres such as MIT and the IRB. Has all this work been key to making your incredible career in the pharmaceutical sector a reality?

I was at MIT for a while thanks to the partnership that was in place at the time with IQS, when seven or eight students went to do their Final Degree Project at MIT, in my case to work on cardiovascular research issues. I picked up a taste for research, and was thinking about doing a PhD somewhere or another. I had the opportunity to continue at MIT for a longer period of time, with a project similar to the one I had been working on, when the opportunity arose for me to contact Dr Joan Massagué in New York, who was then opening a new laboratory in Barcelona. This was in 2006. I packed my bags and went back to Barcelona to do my doctorate at the IRB.

A PhD is another stage during which you also gain solid knowledge, and I was part of an excellent group. But since I had always had an interest in learning about the business side of things as well, seeking a more entrepreneurial aspect, I decided to do an Executive MBA at IESE, which coincided with the last year of my doctorate. At that time, very few people from the health sector were doing an MBA at IESE, and even fewer were involved in basic research as was my case. During my second year at IESE, I began working in the medical area at Otsuka.

That’s how I started out making my career in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite certain learning difficulties at the beginning, I ended up studying languages, I spent time at MIT, I did my doctorate at the IRB, I went to work for large pharmaceutical companies, and I’ve reached a new summit at HIPRA, where I am working on vastly important research for a new vaccine. I’m tremendously happy with what I have achieved. The effort has been worth it!

You currently hold the position of Market Access Senior Manager at the biotech pharmaceutical company HIPRA. What is your experience with the current COVID-19 pandemic like?

I joined HIPRA a few months ago, this past July, where the Human Health Division was recently created. HIPRA boasts over 50 years of experience in the research, development, production, and marketing of vaccines for animal health. At the start of the pandemic, the company didn’t hesitate to support hospitals in the Girona area and processed thousands of PCRs. I contacted them to find out about their commitment to the new division and the vaccine, and they immediately hired me to help the department grow. I form part of the global strategy and sales area that, alongside the R&D and Registrations department, form a very solid and growing structure. From an outset with a single person evaluating the situation with vaccines and the possibility of reaching the market, we have become a team of managers and we are accelerating: discussions with governmental entities and Ministries of Health, seeking distributors, and more. We are building a network and this really motivates us.

The vaccine project is very important. If it goes forward, it will be the first national vaccine to reach Phase IIb. It is a great challenge that is incredibly exciting! And with a countdown! This isn’t a situation one would normally experience. I certainly hadn’t! I’ve been fortunate to do different and quite interesting things in the pharmaceutical industry. But I had never encountered anything at this level and this degree of participation and involvement, not to mention the scope.

To answer your question, we really experience it at a personal level, full of emotions, yet frustration at the same time. We are aware that there are countries with vaccination rates at less than 1% and places where vaccines haven’t even arrived yet. That worries us and we ask ourselves: “How can we get vaccines to certain countries that do not have any?” Our vaccine, for example, has the advantage of being a recombinant protein vaccine, which means it can be stored at temperatures between 2 and 8 ºC, aspects that make it more affordable. It will be a booster vaccine initially, then we will be able to reach everyone more easily.

You have obtained the initial authorization from the Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices (AEMPS) to carry out the clinical tests for your vaccine. What does this challenge mean for you? Any updates?

The AEMPS approved Phase I/IIa in August and the results we obtained have enabled us to advance to Phase IIb. The ten participating hospitals – Trueta in Girona; Clínic, Vall d’Hebron, and Can Ruti in Barcelona; Cruces in the Basque Country; La Paz, Gregorio Marañón, and Príncipe de Asturias in Madrid; Clínico de Valencia; and the Málaga regional hospital – have already started to call for volunteers (more than 1,000 participants are needed). If everything goes well, we’ll be starting Phase III by the end of 2022. We’re really hopeful and happy. It’s all so exciting!