Glaxo's provides lab for drug testing at the Olympic

In the London lab are (from left) Olympic organizing committee chief Sebastian Coe; David Cowan, head of Kings College London's drug testing center, and Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty. About half the 10,500 athletes will give samples. Photo courtesy of GSK
In the London lab are (from left) Olympic organizing committee chief Sebastian Coe; David Cowan, head of Kings College London's drug testing center, and Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty. About half the 10,500 athletes will give samples. Photo courtesy of GSK
Posted: July 23, 2012

Any short list of the world's great intersections includes the city of London, which is part of why the 2012 Summer Olympics will open there on Friday.

Newly knighted and proud of queen and country, Sir Andrew Witty is of a like mind: Since becoming chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. in 2008, he has taken pharmaceutical operations back to England, closer to Glaxo headquarters in the Brentford section of London. But he has also pushed the company into the far corners of the globe so as to be less dependent on "selling white pills in Western markets."

Unlike almost any other event, the Summer Olympics pulls together people from around the planet, with spectators watching from home, which is why Witty had Glaxo spend about $31.3 million to be the Games' official laboratory services provider.

Unlike most corporate sponsors, who write a check so they can put the official Olympic logo on advertising, Glaxo provided a modern lab for testing blood and urine from some of the world's finest athletes to see whether they are cheating by using any of 240 illegal compounds.

"The Olympic Games and Paralympic Games provide GSK with a huge opportunity to be part of the delivery of an outstanding world event," Witty said in 2009 when the sponsorship was announced.

Glaxo employs about 97,000 people in more than 100 countries, including about 1,300 in Center City. Others work in the Pennsylvania towns of Upper Merion, Upper Providence, Conshohocken, Marietta and Pittsburgh, along with New Jersey locations of Clifton and Parsippany.

Glaxo employees helped establish procedures and set up equipment for what will be a 24-hour drug-testing operation at the laboratory, which is the size of seven tennis courts and located in Harlow, about 28 miles from London. One example is establishing a bar-code system, with label applied to the jar at the time the fluid leaves the athlete. About half of the 10,500 athletes and all of the medal winners will give samples, amounting to about 6,250 tests, or 400 a day.

Glaxo employees won't conduct the actual testing. It will be done by 150 technicians under the direction of professor David Cowan of Kings College London. Despite the irony of England's not having domestic laws banning the personal use of steroids for nonmedical purposes, Cowan and Kings College London's Drug Control Centre are among the leaders in world athletic anti-doping efforts.

The International Olympic Committee and the local organizing committee are responsible for Olympic Games drug testing, though the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lends guidance. This is the first time a private pharmaceutical company has been allowed into that mix.

The relationship won't end at the closing ceremony on Aug. 12. Glaxo signed a long-term agreement with WADA to help the agency create early detection methods for medicines that have performance-enhancing potential in sport. That will include supplying WADA with confidential information about drugs in early development that could be abused by athletes once they are licensed for proper use. WADA also has agreements with Swiss drugmaker Roche.

Coming on the heels of Glaxo's $3 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over criminal and civil allegations about off-label marketing, critics may argue that it's wrong for Glaxo to wrap itself in Olympic glory.

Hard-core scientists might sniff that a drug company won't be judged by its Olympic pin collection, but that would ignore the power of sports to demonstrate human, and legitimate scientific, achievement to the millions of people who have never held a test tube. If you don't believe that, watch the men's 400-meter competition in track and field, in which South Africa's Oscar Pistorius will run on two prosthetic legs, becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.

London organizing committee chief Sebastian Coe, perhaps better known for the 1500-meter gold medals he won in 1980 and 1984, recognized the need for Glaxo's expertise, but also the opportunity for the company.

"We were delighted when GSK joined the Olympic family," Coe said on a video on the Kings College London website. "No organizing committee can ever deliver a Games alone. You have to form really smart working partnerships with smart, creative organizations and people. For GSK, whose business is science and they know that business inside out, to have that kind of accreditation for the work we are undertaking is a very, very important message."

Beyond advertising, some companies use the tickets that come with sponsorship to invite clients to attend as guests — and buy more products in the future. Spokeswoman Sarah Hornby claimed that Glaxo was the only sponsor giving 100 percent of its tickets to employees. She said the company got more than 2,000 nominations for its 100 so-called Golden Tickets. The recipients came from all levels of the company and 83 markets, including six from Philadelphia.

Olympics are notorious for the construction of expensive facilities that sit empty when the crowds depart. In Glaxo's case, it was planning to phase out work in Harlow, but now hopes the Olympic drug testing lab can be sold as a stand-alone business.

But that's for the future. With the athletes and fans arriving at Heathrow Airport, Glaxo tried to help get the party started on July 16 by launching a TV advertising campaign in England, featuring several athletes from the home team. And the English, even with immigrants adding to the cultural diversity of London, have long been very good at pomp and circumstance.

"What is special this time," Witty told London's Daily Telegraph, "is the Olympics are in our home country."

Contact David Sell at 215-854-4506 or dsell@phillynews.com or Twitter @PhillyPharma. Read his PhillyPharma blog on philly.com.

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