In the Face of Crisis
Sitting Down With… Elaine O’Hara, Chief Commercial Officer, Sanofi Pasteur, US (Swiftwater, PA)
Maryam Mahdi | | Interview
How were you introduced to industry?
I moved to the US for my Master’s degree in Business Administration at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. After completing my studies, I joined Accenture – called Anderson at the time – for a consulting role. Serendipitously, I was involved in a project that helped get Astra Merck off the ground. The newly formed enterprise had a great pipeline of drugs and was launching Prilosec, a treatment for acid reflux. I really enjoyed working with the company and decided to leave the consulting world behind. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work on many product launches. The journey has been tremendous!
What makes pharma so interesting?
It’s the opportunity to intervene in public health. Though working in the industry may not be as exciting as the emergency room – and is certainly not as high-paced – I’d argue that it is still incredibly rewarding. Many people live with chronic diseases whose management requires a consistent effort on the patient’s part. I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to the development of a variety of interventions and witness the advances the industry has made and continues to make – positively impacting lives across the globe.
But, ultimately, it’s the fact that pharma allows us to rally around the causes that really matter. The COVID-19 pandemic is one example that demonstrates how invested we are in protecting patients – but companies across the industry are also working to treat everything from CNS disorders to antimicrobial diseases. It’s something we can all be proud of.
Years before I joined Sanofi, I had already developed an interest in the company’s work. It had an extensive vaccine portfolio, but what stood out to me the most were its influenza products. Once strains are identified, the manufacturing of relevant vaccines has to begin. To meet public demand, a rapid turnaround is a must. The structured timeline requires a lot of dedication, patience, and attention to detail. I wanted to be in that kind of environment and was fortunate enough to join the company in 2017. Today, I lead Sanofi Pasteur’s North America commercial operations.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you?
Before the pandemic began, we all met face-to-face. It was normal for me to sit down with my team and plan our commercial activities – designing strategies for the year and assessing vaccine needs across North America. That has now drastically changed. Remote interactions have become our new reality and, though it was a shock to begin with, it soon became the norm. Our sales representatives, for example, adapted very quickly. Though they had previously met with customers in physical locations, Zoom became an integral part of their continued client relationships. They’ve certainly taken the change in stride; some who were more comfortable with digital tools even participated in training to help maintain our operations. It’s great to see the flexibility of our employees, and across the industry as a whole.
Beyond this, we’re on track to meet many of the goals we had set at the beginning of the year. We’ve developed adaptive vaccination solutions that help healthcare providers] immunize the patients reluctant to physically enter the doctor’s office – they were concerned with exposure to the coronavirus. However, in a year like the one we’ve had, no one wants to see other vaccine preventable diseases cropping up. And so, it was important for us to develop solutions that supported HCPs to continue to administer all those other vaccines that protect against diseases like influenza and meningitis, these vaccines can be administered anywhere – even through the window of your car in a parking lot. This approach helps ensure that as many people as possible are properly protected against viral and bacterial infections.
What does it take to be a leader?
Resilience and patience! It’s easy to panic when difficult situations arise but, with time, I’ve come to understand that focusing on your core goals – rather than on the barriers and set-backs that that happen along the way – is essential to staying on track. If you’re calm and open-minded, it becomes easier to resolve the problems you face. Having close ties with your customer base is another key aspect of “team leadership”. Helping them overcome their problems is not only gratifying, but also pragmatic, because they are the individuals who will help us in our goal of serving patients.
I also think that being a source of inspiration for your team matters. At the end of the day, they are the ones helping the company achieve successful outcomes – so they need to see positive qualities in you that they can draw motivation from. A little bit of humor is also helpful during stressful times.
Which industry figures have inspired you?
I’ve been fortunate in that most individuals I’ve reported to throughout my career have been very helpful and given great advice. It’s powerful when you have a boss who encourages you to go in a certain direction and helps you grow.
Outside the industry, one of my current heroes is Anthony Fauci. He has been incredible at toeing the line with respect to what’s important regarding COVID-19. He's also under incredible pressure, but he’s spent years fighting for medical excellence and has a vast knowledge of pandemics, epidemics and health crises. I appreciate the work he is doing and the way he has continued to promote the scientific messages required to deal with the pandemic.
Are you optimistic about the future?
At Sanofi Pasteur, we’re developing our own COVID-19 vaccine and – as our CEO put it – it’s very interesting to work on a vaccine with the world’s eyes on you. Internationally, people will have questions about our progress. How will this vaccine come to market? How will it be distributed? Who will receive it?
We’ll be able to provide more answers as the situation changes. I think this will help the general public develop a stronger understanding of pharmaceutical products and how they are produced and delivered to the market. Conversely, there’s the potential for skepticism because of the speed at which this kind of vaccine is moving through the clinical pipeline. That’s something the pharmaceutical industry will have to continue to address. We have very good processes in place to ensure product safety and efficacy – but now, more than ever before, we must be able to prove that to patients.
All this being said, the public’s knowledge of – and trust in – the pharmaceutical industry is better than it was in the past. Until perhaps a year ago, most people didn’t have a clear understanding of what vaccine manufacturing looked like. I’m pleased that we’re now at a pivotal moment where we can educate our community and reduce vaccine fear. This will help us build stronger bonds with the people we aim to serve, which can only be described as a positive step forward.
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