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Business & Regulation Business Practice, Digital Technologies, Small Molecules, Vaccines, COVID-19

COVID-19: Navigating the New Norm

This article was published in our sister publication, The Small Molecule Manufacturer, which celebrates the field of small molecule drug development and manufacturing with interviews and articles focusing on success stories, equipment, and new processing techniques. Read more about The Small Molecule Manufacturer here https://themedicinemaker.com/manufacture/small-but-never-forgotten

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new reality; businesses have closed and terms like “self-isolation” and “lockdown” have become common vernacular. For the pharmaceutical industry, the pandemic means striking the right balance between increased demand for therapeutic solutions to COVID-19 and the safety of employees who, just like everyone else, are vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. 

Pharma is under pressure to deliver and to help relieve some of the burden felt by the healthcare industry –  a challenge that represented a major point of discussion at this year’s eyeforpharma event. Originally planned to take place in Spain, eyeforpharma happened virtually, but still aimed to examine the “critical issues facing the pharma and med device industry.” Pharmaceutical professionals came together to examine the ways in which the industry can use digital technologies to maneuver itself through the COVID-19 outbreak.

Start-ups aren’t the most financially stable companies. And, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have had to become even leaner to manage the change. But this doesn’t mean they have to hide in the shadow of big pharma. According to Jessica Federer, former Chief Digital Officer at Bayer, who spoke at the eyeforpharma event, this is an opportune moment for start-ups to prove their inherent value to the pharmaceutical industry by showcasing the benefits of digital technologies for tackling infectious disease. 

Start-ups are generally reliant on digital platforms (which are typically cheaper and more agile than conventional Customer Relation Management, or CRM, systems) and accustomed to remote engagement. They must, therefore, be able to “demonstrate their core capabilities” to both cement their place in the industry and weather the hard times caused by COVID-19. Federer believes they can do this by taking advantage of their expertise in data sharing. “The pandemic has left the global scientific community with the feeling that it has a duty to share and publish the data it has in relation to the virus. Though this information sharing is a positive step forward for the industry, it makes it difficult for physicians to weed through it to find the most pertinent data,” she said. “Digital companies and start-ups can prove their worth to the industry by implementing technologies that improve information sharing and encourage transparency within the industry.”

Tellic Health, which was founded in 2015, is an example, according to Federer, of a company working to improve the accessibility and availability of relevant material. The start-up helps pharmaceutical companies to apply data science technologies, and recently responded to the White House’s call for the artificial intelligence community to develop new text and data mining techniques to help the scientific community answer high-priority questions related to COVID-19 (2).

Digital companies and start-ups can prove their worth to the industry by implementing technologies that improve information sharing and encourage transparency within the industry.

Tellic Health, which was founded in 2015, is an example, according to Federer, of a company working to improve the accessibility and availability of relevant material. The start-up helps pharmaceutical companies to apply data science technologies, and recently responded to the White House’s call for the artificial intelligence community to develop new text and data mining techniques to help the scientific community answer high-priority questions related to COVID-19 (2).

“The company is launching a free tool, graph.C19, a product containing data on COVID-19 and other coronaviruses so that anyone who wants to see and search through all the COVID-19 related research can do so,” Federer said. “It enables any researcher to log in and instantly access integrated knowledge from previous experience with coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, as well as gain insights from the growing sea of biomedical data on COVID-19.”

For Federer, these types of companies can truly flourish in this environment by delivering value to the companies and patients who are currently in need. Across the industry, companies of all sizes are having to adapt and reshape their approaches to managing the consequences of a global pandemic. Though the loss of life and strain placed on the healthcare industry are heartbreaking, it is pushing pharmaceutical companies to work towards a better future.

Triggering change

Though nobody has a crystal ball, there are a number of things, according to Andreas Koester, Former VP Clinical Innovation at Janssen, that seem inevitable for big pharma companies after the crisis. “In this new climate, where social distancing has become commonplace, big pharma companies are beginning to see the advantages and the efficiencies of using digital tools,” he said. “So, I think there is no way going back to the old way of doing business.”

The sentiment was echoed by Danilo Pagano, Vice President, Digital & Customer Engagement at Lundbeck. “Pharmaceutical companies will have to replace more traditional forms of communication with customers and clients with more digital approaches,” he said. The two speakers, however, agreed that there was a learning curve for the industry to negotiate. “This situation is definitely pushing the industry in a positive direction and it is helping companies to adopt technologies that they may have previously been uncomfortable with. It’s a new starting point for the industry when it comes to the technology at its disposal,” said Pagano.

For Koester, much of the change he expects to see will be within the realm of clinical trials. “Despite the industry’s efforts to introduce more innovative approaches to clinical trial development, we’re still lagging behind what our inherent potential indicates we can do,” he argued. “If anything is to come of this crisis, it would be the death of incrementalism – the industry’s attitude of slowly introducing change to the clinical trials process.”

In the past few weeks, China has transitioned from being in a state of lockdown to one where I am able to call my colleagues in the region who are now back in the office. We can now look at the way China has managed the pandemic and re-use and apply some of their initiatives to help the global community.

Koester went on to explain that, while the industry has previously been satisfied with its progress, in many ways it had failed to prepare for dealing with a new infectious agent; it only became “painfully clear” to companies when the COVID-19 crisis began. “For too long, our risk averse nature held us back from taking bold steps when it came to the clinical trial process. What we need now is better point-of-care randomization, an improved ability to test known drugs for their potential efficacy and to be able to assess their safety. Every patient who enters a hospital with a coronavirus infection should be able to enter a randomized trial so that we can see, in a matter of weeks, which existing drugs work and which do not.”

Koester also discussed how the crisis could be used as an opportunity for pharma companies to better interact with and educate the public. “There are people taking hydroxychloroquine phosphate, a substance used to clean fish tanks, in the hope that it will help protect them against COVID-19,” Koester explained. “The industry’s newfound digital savvy should encourage them to directly communicate with patients and create a more positive perception of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Beyond how individual companies can use the crisis as a catalyst for change and improvement, Pagano believes that there are lessons to be learned by the global industry from China’s management of the crisis. From the mass production of Gilead’s experimental drug, remdesivir, to backing pharmaceutical companies’ clinical trials for repurposed drugs, the country has, in the weeks and months since the crisis began, looked for multiple ways of dealing with the situation. 

“In the past few weeks, China has transitioned from being in a state of lockdown to one where I am able to call my colleagues in the region who are now back in the office. We can now look at the way China has managed the pandemic and re-use and apply some of their initiatives to help the global community,” said Pagano.

Will we need to re-examine the boundaries of privacy and data sharing? “There was once a time when the concerns about privacy and data sharing were so high that it would prevent good work being done in terms of trials. Now, in light of this global pandemic, it may be easier to accept that changes must be made,” Koester said. “Those in leadership positions within pharma companies will have a big role to play in this. They must empower their employees to take news risks. In my opinion, these will be the companies that successfully make it out of the crisis.”

The eyeforpharma speakers were united in a thought-provoking conclusion: those companies that believe we will ever return to the pre-COVID-19 world run the risk of succumbing to failure.

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  1. Financial Times, “Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as the pandemic spreads” (2020). Available at: https://on.ft.com/3ewJD9s 
  2. Tellic Health, “Free access to tellic graph.C19 for COVID-19 research” (2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/2yiSE5I

About the Author

Maryam Mahdi

Associate Editor

After finishing my degree, I envisioned a career in science communications. However, life took an unexpected turn and I ended up teaching abroad. Though the experience was amazing and I learned a great deal from it, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Texere. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me!

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