During the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, pharmaceutical companies have been in the headlines on a regular basis, and none more so than AstraZeneca.

From setting up a coronavirus testing facility in Cambridge, to partnering with Oxford University on vaccine research and production, they have been at the forefront of the fight against the disease and involved in all the key developments.

Paul Heath, a Senior Associate in our Corporate team, spent three months on secondment in the legal department at AstraZeneca's UK (AZ) marketing company in Luton earlier this year, just before the lockdown started. Partner Paul Gershlick asked him to reflect on his experiences working in one of the world's biggest pharma companies.

Why were you keen to undertake this secondment when the opportunity came up?

I have been involved with the Pharmaceuticals & Life Sciences sector at VWV for a number of years now and I find it a fascinating area. I have used my company law and corporate finance expertise to help pharma clients with shareholders agreements, business sales and banking work, and have always been looking to build my sector specific knowledge too.

One of the best ways to do this has been attending VWV's PING events (our Pharmaceutical Industry Network Group) - it was through the attendance of AZ's Head of Legal at some of our PING conferences that the relationship between VWV and AZ has been developed which led to the chance of the secondment. Once the offer came up, we wanted to do everything possible to make it happen - there is so much we can learn from interacting with a client with the size and scope of AZ, and it was great to get the chance to show them the value that VWV's skills and knowledge can add.

What did you do while you were there?

A little bit of everything! While at VWV we may have our legal and sector specialisms that mean we repeatedly deal with similar matters for different clients, in-house you have to be ready to tackle anything that comes across your desk.

Naturally there were a lot of supplier contracts to deal with, but also more complex and industry-specific agreements too. AZ do a lot of joint-working arrangements with the NHS, in areas such as severe asthma and provides medical and educational goods and services too (MEGS). Both of these areas require not only careful drafting of the contracts from a legal and commercial perspective, but also from a compliance angle as they are regulated by the ABPI Code of Conduct.

So regulatory issues were a big factor in the work you did too?

Absolutely. Being in-house at a UK marketing company for pharmaceuticals means making sure everything complies with both the letter and spirit of the ABPI Code, and this has to be factored in at the outset of any project and monitored throughout.

In my time at AZ, I was also involved in discussions with NICE about the marketing authorisations for certain drugs, and it was very interesting to get an industry take on the conduct and approach of the regulators, and how best to approach them.

What did you learn from the experience?

I saw first-hand how demanding it is for our in-house colleagues to have to keep on top of such a broad range of work and topics, and I hope that will help be better understand how to give them the support they need when working with them at future, be that AZ or any other in-house legal team.

As outside counsel, you often only see a legal issue in isolation, so it was hugely instructive to see the background commercial discussions that go into the decisions the in-house team make, how those drivers and pressures that interact with the standard legal considerations.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at AZ and I am hoping that all the knowledge I have gained will enable me to play a bigger role in VWV's work with both the pharma sector and in-house world going forward.

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