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Is COVID the Rx for the Pharmaceutical Industry's Reputation?

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer
Darlene Dobry

Darlene Dobry, Strategic Advisor, Pharmaceutical and Device

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring the world's economies, healthcare systems, and communities to their knees, the Pharma industry appears to be the shining hope to help us return to a new normal. Could the industry's response to this global public health crisis be the Rx for its tarnished reputation?

The Pharma industry has long been at the center of a firestorm, cited consistently as one of the most disliked and distrusted industries in the Gallup poll. It's not surprising given the media coverage of CEO and company financial disclosures, patent trials, illegal activities, and questionable practices, legal settlements, price gouging, product recalls, and, most recently, its role in the devastating opioid epidemic. While the public's high distrust and disdain are directed at "greedy" Pharma, prescription drug spending accounts for between 10-12% of total US healthcare costs, and now, in our time of greatest need, we turn to this industry to help us confront COVID-19. This pandemic has brought the committed, community-focused side of Pharma to the forefront, with its rapid and relentless pursuit to deliver the best science to solve this crisis.

Pharmaceuticals Collaborating for COVID's Rx

There are brilliant and talented people in dozens of companies, both established manufacturers and small start-ups, working tirelessly to find a solution. Early efforts developed and produced testing assays to help the healthcare community identify and confirm the virus. The expanded focus now pursues proven treatments and vaccines. We see unexpected partnerships and creativity abound in the race to find answers that will address the crippling impact on public health and disrupt the economy and supply chains. Thomas Cueni, who leads the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) in Geneva, notes, "the industry, which is traditionally fiercely competitive, has come together."

For example, rivals like Sanofi and GSK are working to bring their innovative technologies together for a vaccine, with Astra-Zeneca and Oxford University signing a global development and distribution agreement for a CO-19 vaccine, Takeda and CoVIg-19 Alliance investing in plasma therapies, Regeneron and Sanofi conducting clinical trials for their jointly marketed Rheumatoid Arthritis drug Kevzara, and Pfizer and BioNTech are collaborating on an mRNA vaccine. There is an impressive number of ongoing trials to evaluate existing drugs for other diseases, including Gilead's Remdesivir which now has FDA authorization for emergency use, and Gilead Sciences is applying for full authorization in the U.S., specialty biotech companies like Moderna and Novavax have also entered the race and are fast-tracked for their vaccine candidates.

Pharma's Investments & Innovations during COVID-19

Beyond drug treatment and vaccine development, the industry has also brought new ingenuity and investment to fight COVID-19 and support the healthcare system; Johnson & Johnson is pledging $300M over ten years to help front-line workers, Astra-Zeneca donating 9M face masks to protect healthcare workers around the world, companies deploying their 3D printing capabilities to manufacture PPE and equipment, and Consumer Product companies producing hand sanitizers.

This industry, its brilliant researchers, and dedicated employees are unwavering in their mission to be a part of the solution by investing in unknowns despite the risk, diverting focus from other commercially available/development assets, and pioneering scientific innovation to confront COVID-19. With the sheer number of companies in this race, we stand the best chance of finding solutions and having the scale to keep up with the alarming projections of cases. It also helps to foster competition and encourage fair pricing. Despite Pharma's commitment to the cause, there continue to be critics who attribute Pharma's efforts to capitalizing on a crisis and solely focused on profit. For those who feel Pharma should not make a profit from the deep investment, at this moment, it's difficult to put a price on overcoming this enemy.

Pharma Marcom & PR during COVID

With the knowledge that consumers look to brands and companies that demonstrate social responsibility, philanthropic and community support, other industry leaders and I agree that there is an opportunity for Pharma to begin to evolve from some of the negative perceptions and elevate recognition of its essential role in moving us from "StayatHome" to "StayHealthy." We are beginning to see public opinion improve throughout this pandemic, according to a recent Harris poll. From a marketing and public relations standpoint, I'm hopeful the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) will take this moment to elevate public awareness and highlight the level of corporate commitment and investment behind the scenes of this pandemic.

This is not self-serving. This is about scientific innovation, leadership during crisis, corporate responsibility, and saving lives. The industry should continue to demonstrate its thought leadership during this time through scientific publications and serving as an expert voice. As consumers increasingly search for information about the virus, vaccines, and treatment, Pharma needs to ensure the public has access to credible, scientifically-grounded content across media channels. Given the sequelae from this pandemic, there is also a tremendous need to address mental health and wellbeing. With the significant investment and access to mental health solutions and services, Pharma can also answer this call.

Pharma Marketing & Healthcare Marketing | COVID & Beyond

As advertising and communication experts, now is the time to step up and be even truer and more innovative pharmaceutical marketing agency partners. While our pharma, medical and healthcare clients are redirecting their efforts toward COVID-19, our own industry must be even more proactive and creative. Let's bring pharmaceuticals strategically inventive marketing communication ideas and messaging programs to keep their brands and marketing more relevant during the COVID pandemic. Let's help pharmas more effectively reach their increasingly "remote" customers and patients. Let's drive better search rankings by developing more useful and authoritative content to educate online-engaged healthcare audiences by way of dedicated pharmaceutical SEO. Let's explore corporate campaigns and grass-roots programs to draw medical and pharmaceutical enterprises closer to their patient communities and genuinely bolster reputations. As experts in social media, let's help Pharma be consistently compliant and proactively trustworthy participants in conversations concerning diseases & conditions. Let's elevate the pharma industry's core values currently on display through successfully inventive creativity and discerning innovation. As partners, let's work tirelessly to create and focus insightful spotlights on the heroic efforts of our client-partners -- healthcare and medical innovators dedicated to making "life-changing" differences within today's life-changing public health crisis.

COVID and Healthcare Marketing — related articles: [Podcast] Hospital Crisis Management and Healthcare PR in the Age of COVID-19 | 5 Ways You Can Use Social Media and Digital Marketing to Help the Public During the COVID-19 Pandemic | Healthcare Marketing: Pause, Pivot, or Push for Success?

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