Pharma Companies’ Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

How are pharma companies battling the tough conditions imposed by the pandemic?

Dr. Nick Turner, Senior Director

Dr. Nick Turner, Senior Director

The search for a vaccine has become a priority for pharma companies with the infrastructure to deliver. Several vaccine candidates have already entered clinical trials and biopharmaceuticals are being repurposed to treat the exaggerated inflammatory response that seems to drive organ damage. AstraZeneca has partnered with the University of Oxford to develop the latter’s COVID-19 vaccine and is the frontrunner in bringing a vaccine to market. Johnson & Johnson has a lead vaccine candidate that is expected to enter clinical trials in Q3 2020. Merck has instituted a broad-based development program, with focus on three antiviral vaccine programs, and is expected to put a vaccine into clinical development in 2020. Glaxo SmithKline is presently involved in seven collaborations exploring the potential of adjuvanted COVID-19 vaccines. Its collaboration with Sanofi is expected to put an adjuvanted Sanofi vaccine into trials in H2 2020, while its collaboration with Vir Biotechnology seeks to identify and accelerate new antiviral antibodies.

The hope that an existing drug may prove effective against COVID-19 has prompted Bristol Myers Squibb to open its compound library to external research. Other companies are exploring whether their current drugs may be deployed as treatments for COVID-19: Gilead has demonstrated that remdesivir can result in clinical improvement in some COVID-19 patients. AbbVie is actively exploring whether its antiviral HIV drugs (lopinavir and ritonavir) are effective against COVID-19 and has initiated a Phase II study of the effects of Imbruvica in moderate-to-severe COVID-19 patients. Roche’s arthritis drug (tocilizumab) has shown promise in treating critically ill patients, Eli Lilly’s drug (baricitinib) has been included in the NIAID’s adaptive COVID-19 treatment trial, and Novartis has initiated Phase III studies of ruxolitinib and canakinumab.

As effective and accurate testing is a key component of tackling the pandemic, companies such as AbbVie and Roche are part of the push to develop faster and more accurate methods of screening for the virus and antibodies to it.

A more comprehensive overview of pharma companies’ responses to COVID-19 is available in a free white paper, Pharma in the Post-COVID Era – Adapting to the New Normal.

The specific responses to the COVID-19 crisis outlined above are just a few examples of how individual companies have played to their strengths. Moving forward, there are further safeguards and measures that all companies will wish to consider as the scenario plays out and we move into a new reality.

Prepare for COVID-19 to return seasonally

The current outbreak of COVID-19 has taken the world by surprise; pharma companies must be prepared for future outbreaks which are likely to be unpredictable in onset and duration and could require further cycles of lockdown and relaxation until herd immunity is established.

The pharma industry, therefore, should be prepared for the responses enacted during this pandemic phase to become a permanent feature in how clinical trials and commercial activities are conducted in the future.

Prepare for the new normal

Despite the difficulties of the sudden change in operations demanded by COVID-19, the pharma business model has largely proven resilient in the face of the initial pandemic wave. Nevertheless, the global response has affected the industry’s operations from R&D through to its interaction with its customer base, providing an opportunity for the industry to assess how it operates. Given that further waves look inevitable, lasting changes are expected.

Enforced adaptations such as reduced staffing levels and remote inspections in manufacturing, virtual monitoring of operations and the real-time digital monitoring of inventory and channel movements are both necessary and economically attractive. These will likely become permanent given the potential cost savings. Other changes may come into play if repeated COVID-19 waves compromise R&D productivity.

Post the crisis, remote engagement could become a more prominent part of the interaction mix, requiring pharma companies to rethink how to best to interact with HCPs, payers and consumers to extract the greatest value.

Revolutionize R&D practices

The long-standing problem of attrition could become a bigger challenge for pharma companies if R&D is restricted by sustained or repeated COVID-19 containment measures. A recent McKinsey survey found that R&D labs have been operating at below 50% of normal capacity during the lockdown and R&D productivity has declined by 25-75%. Further alternating periods of lockdown and relaxation could represent the shape of things to come.

Recurring waves of infections would significantly disrupt pharma companies’ capacity to carry out preclinical research if they do not implement radical changes to their current practices. There could also be a productivity decline that may hamper the flow of discovery programs into clinical development. The problem of attrition, in other words, will only become more pronounced.

Clinical trials have also been significantly disrupted with trials suspended, enrolment closed or delayed, and trial sites shuttered. Restarting clinical trial activity while maintaining social distancing and clinical safety protocols, therefore, is likely to make trials more time-consuming and costly. Over the near to medium term, decisions will have to be made regarding which trials or development candidates are prioritized according to which studies are likely to deliver the greatest clinical and/or commercial impact.

Pharma companies have not escaped the massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them have been able to successfully negotiate the early stages of the pandemic, and those that had a head start on digitized operations and automation have been at an advantage in a world where offices are closed and employees have to work remotely. The speed of adoption of digital technologies and novel working practices into the “new normal” business model, therefore, will be key to weathering the logistic and practical disruption arising from continuing COVID-19 outbreaks.

The impact of COVID-19 and the pharma industry’s response to it are explored further in an exclusive Prescient white paper:

Pharma in the Post-COVID Era – Adapting to the New Normal

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