Features

Vanina de Verneuil – Vir Biotechnology, Inc.

Striving for a world without infectious disease and beyond

It’s a corporate goal that’s likely impossible, for this world has never been free of infectious diseases. Nevertheless, incremental progress is to be recognized and furthered as infectious diseases continue to threaten global health, economic security and society.

So onward Vanina de Verneuil pushes as senior vice president of legal and corporate secretary of Vir. When Vanguard caught up with her, she was upbeat and excited by the company’s expanded mission and new leadership.

Vanina de Verneuil | Senior Vice President, Legal and Corporate Secretary | Vir Biotechnology, Inc.

Vanina de Verneuil | Senior Vice President, Legal and Corporate Secretary | Vir Biotechnology, Inc.

Vir feels refreshed and lively, she says, with the arrival of Dr. Marianne De Backer, the new chief executive officer who has injected a renewed sense of purpose and excitement into the company. Vir is prioritizing its monoclonal antibody platform which has already yielded two impactful medicines for patients and applying it more broadly in infectious diseases and beyond.

In the near term, the company expects two Phase 2 data readouts from ongoing hepatitis B and chronic hepatitis delta programs in the fourth quarter of 2023. It’s focused on developing medicines in its pipeline as quickly and efficiently as possible, with the goal of building a fully commercial company with significant global impact for patients.

Global impact

“One company alone can’t pursue our mission of a world without infectious disease,” de Verneuil says.

Among the initiatives for which she can take some credit, Vir has aligned with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance the development of the company’s broadly neutralizing antibody technology aimed at a functional cure for HIV.

“This partnership supports our shared goal of developing innovative solutions for global infectious diseases,” de Verneuil says from Palo Alto, California. “We are looking for a win-win by partnering with great people and organizations.”

Her personal commitment to eradicating infectious disease and social inequalities goes back to early 2009 with her days as a human rights intern with the United Nations Joint Program for HIV/AIDS and working as a prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

And difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for the rest of the world, she says it’s brought out the best in Vir, which in collaboration with partner GSK, developed in 15 months sotrovimab, a monoclonal antibody which continues to be a treatment option for patients outside the U.S. at high risk of hospitalization. Overall, sotrovimab has been supplied to more than 40 countries. But de Verneuil reminds us that the world remains far from infectious-disease-free and thus the mission endures. 

“It’s been an exhilarating three years here,” she says. “I’ve represented public companies and their boards my whole career but have never been prouder of what I do on a day-to-day basis. My job is this wonderful mix of law, finance and science backed by a deep-rooted mission to push the boundaries of innovation to help patients. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

As a publicly traded biotech company with such an ambitious mission, she emphasizes how essential it is to have a solid legal foundation that safeguards research and intellectual property while ensuring that business is conducted with integrity and in compliance.

Quite the role model

Also wanting to empower her female peers, de Verneuil co-founded and co-chaired Women@Vir, the company’s first employee resource group for women. Though Vir is already a diverse company reflected by its executive management team, de Verneuil is striving for women to continue to have more leadership opportunities.  

“Women@Vir has given the women an outlet to voice anything that’s on their minds,” she says. “It has been a great catalyst to meet people outside the departments where you usually work and has enhanced the wonderful culture that we already have at Vir.”

However inspired the women may be, anyone might be hard-pressed to match de Verneuil’s experiences. Colombian-born and Miami-raised, she earned degrees from Duke University and New York University School of Law. She honed her skills at law firms and as general counsel of a publicly traded company, even working a year in Africa as a United Nations senior prosecutor for the Rwandan genocide of the mid-1990s. She’s also lived and worked on Wall Street and in France, where she met her husband, and in China and India.

“Since I was little, I’ve always wanted a career that touched the global community,” she says. “Law and foreign languages appealed to me. I like to solve problems and love learning. Being a lawyer and speaking multiple languages gives you the ability to make an impact.”

Down to a science

De Verneuil and her legal team support the business in its fiduciary duty and help drive the company’s pipeline and science forward while protecting its intellectual property and supporting its collaboration with partners on the development of potential new medicines. Then there’s her role in the corporate governance piece which is so key and working with Vir’s board of directors and shareholders.

It’s a demanding role, but one she finds preferable to private practice.

“At Vir, I am immersed in projects from conception to completion and am part of the heart and soul of a global mission,” she says.

Still, she benefited from her years as a partner and corporate associate with such firms as Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett, Shearman & Sterling, and DLA Piper, that last one bringing de Verneuil and her family to Silicon Valley, which has become home. She traces her ambitious streak to her grandmother, who owned a stationery shop where as a young girl she took a fascination with pencils, pens and markers. The woman’s 104 years young, wears silk dresses, remains physically and mentally sharp, and has never spent a night in a hospital.

“Between my parents and grandmother, I’ve had three amazing role models,” says de Verneuil, who now acts the part for her 9-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. “I hope to make as great of an impact as the impact my grandmother has imprinted on all of us.” 

View this feature in the Vanguard Summer IV 2023 Edition here.

Published on: September 5, 2023

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