2020: Learnings From A Yearlong Catastrophic Disruption And Crystal-Gazing 2021

 Wishing All My Readers A Very Happy, Healthy, Peaceful and Prosperous 2021

Just a few days left for the year 2020 to merge with history. It will be remembered by all – as a year of all-round catastrophic global disruption. With unprecedented impact on human lives, livelihoods, economy, and ways of doing things – sparing virtually nothing. The sole cause of which is an unprecedented single event – Covid-19 pandemic. As of December 27, 2020 morning, India recorded a staggering figure of 10,118,392 new Coronavirus cases with 147,659 deaths. The threat of subsequent waves for further infection of Covid-19 infection continues.

In this article, I shall focus on some critical lessons learnt from the 2020 health crisis, while crystal-gazing 2021. I’ll do this purely from the health care perspective, in general, and the pharmaceutical industry, in particular. Keeping this in view, some of the lessons learnt during the pandemic are as follows:

A. Never allow a sense of hubris setting in:

This is easier said than done. Nonetheless, before the Covid pandemic played havocs with all, many top pharma leaders were, apparently, in a hubris. It was often laced with excessive confidence, if not arrogance. The predominant belief was nothing can go so wrong sans unfavorable policy decisions by the governments. This was against a much-known management dictum for all – always anticipate future probabilities that may impact the business and keep prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best. On a hindsight, this was, obviously jettisoned – lock, stock and barrel. No one was prepared for any biological threats, such as, Covid pandemic, till the deadly virus caught the humanity off-guard around December 2019, as we see below:

The pandemic was expected, but struck unexpectedly:

A pandemic wasn’t totally unexpected either. Therefore, they question that surfaces - Experts warned of a pandemic decades ago. Why weren’t we ready? Just in 2015, even Bill Gates, during a Ted talk titled, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” also predicted - based on available facts that an epidemic would kill millions in the future.

He further added: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s more likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war – not missiles, but microbes.” Gates further emphasized: “We have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”

B. Research on anti-infective drugs shouldn’t be pushed to the back burner: 

These warnings were, apparently, ignored by the pharma industry. For example, as reported in the first quarter of 2020, many research-based pharma companies shifted ‘resources away from emerging infectious diseases into more lucrative areas like cancer treatment. Their business decisions risk leaving gaping holes in the fight against epidemics, such as the one caused by the novel Coronavirus.’

Let’s now take a pause for pharma players to ponder. Are they ready, at least now, with a robust plan – based on almost a year’s experience of an unprecedented agony along with its customers, specifically to counter any future biological threat? Be that as it may, there have also been some good outcomes out of the Covid crisis, both for the pharma industry and also for the health care customers.

C. The pandemic hastened pharma’s digital transformation process:

As is known, compared to many other industries, pharma industry was a late learner in the digitalization process of organizations. The new realities of disruptions caused by the pandemic had significantly expedited this process to keep the business going. There were no other effective options available, either, but to move beyond business stabilization and redefine how they do business. The IQVIA article, ‘Digital transformation in a post-Covid-19 world,’ published in the Pharmaceutical Technology, on August 31, 2020, also reiterated this point.

Elaborating the point further, the article pointed out: ‘As a result, acceleration of three key capabilities is occurring to create sustainable competitive advantage,’ as follows:

  • Digital capabilities with modern technology are enabling companies doing the right things during the pandemic and accelerating the process.
  • Providing access to granular data to support the extraction of precise insights into the needs of patients and physicians.
  • Ensuring capabilities for sustaining relationships. While face-to-face interaction has been dramatically reduced, relationships with HCPs and patients are taking new shapes and are of more importance than ever before.

D. Telemedicine came under mainstream care, supported by Government:

Finding no other viable alternatives during the Covid lockdown period and the need to stringently follow prescribed health measures, many patients were pushed to search for a robust digital solution for health care needs. Just as many of them were already using online platforms to meet other regular needs. In that sense, Covid propelled health care into a virtual world, bringing telehealth or telemedicine toward mainstream care, supported by the Government with a policy, for the first time, ever.

E. Quality of pharma response to pandemic enhanced industry image:

As I had discussed before in this blog, Consumer centric communications, driven by the  ‘hope and confidence as companies rushed to come up with COVID-19 vaccines and treatments’ of all, helped to significantly enhance the industry’s image during the year. In my view, pharma shouldn’t let go this opportunity to reposition itself, to reap a rich harvest in the years ahead.

Crystal-gazing 2021: 

A. A lurking fear will keep haunting:

Moving away from the outgoing year – 2020, if one crystal gazes the incoming – yet another brand-new year – 2021, a lurking fear still haunts most peoples’ minds. Will the all-round disruptions of 2020 be the new normal in 2021 – with no further escalation of the current situation?

B. Vaccine rollout will reduce rapid spread, but not eliminate Covid-19:

Gradual rolling out of vaccines may reduce the rapid spread of pandemic, provided Covid-19 doesn’t throw more surprises, such as, complicated mutation, blunting this initiative. However, currently available evidence indicates, the new variant could be more transmissible, yet vaccines may work very well against it.

 C. Masking, physical distancing, hand washing, etc., will continue:

Besides, many yet unknown side effects, the duration of immunity following coronavirus vaccination is still largely unknown due to the simple lack of time we’ve had to study such immune responses. Moreover, the trials do not tell us if the vaccines can block the transmission of the disease from those who are asymptomatic and have been vaccinated. Thus, masking, physical distancing, hand washing, testing, treating and contact tracing, reportedly, will continue to be important in the global campaign against COVID-19, even after vaccine rollout.

D. NDDS for Covid drugs and vaccines may come: 

New formulations, new Covid drug delivery systems, newer methods to bring Covid vaccines, like nasal sprays, in a powder form for easy transportation and to reach more people around the world, are expected to commence in 2021.

E. Waiting for going back to pre-Covid game plan is a losing strategy:

Vaccines are unlikely to take us back to pre-Covid time, any time soon. Even McKinsey & Companypredicted the same in its article: ‘‘How COVID-19 is redefining the next-normal operating model,’ published on December 10, 2020. It emphasized: “With everything disrupted, going back to the same old thing is a losing strategy. The strongest companies are reinventing themselves by embracing pandemic- driven change.”

Many pharma majors are also echoing the same, even as Covid-19 vaccines have started rolling out for public in different parts of the world. After weighing-in the pros and cons of waiting, many of them have articulated: ‘We will not return to the old ways of working.’ They believe, it’s too early to put a specific timeline on turning that page now. Hence, the year 2021, working of the pharma companies is unlikely to be significantly different from the year 2020.

F. Need to capture and respond fast to changing customer behaviors:

Covid-19 pandemic is fast changing many human attitudes and behaviors, forcing organizations to respond. ‘However, the need to respond won’t end when the virus’s immediate threat eventually recedes,’ reaffirmed the Accenture article ‘COVID-19: 5 new human truths that experiences need to address.’ The massive behavior changes of key pharma stakeholders, at a never before scale and speed, will continue to prompt many leading drug companies to respond to them with well thought through digital tools, to gain competitive advantages.

G. Virtual meetings with reps, doctors and others will continue:

As witnessed in 2020, often for the first time – virtual meeting of sales reps, key opinion leaders and others will continue in 2021, even after ‘live’ ones return, but with more innovative structure and content. Pharma marketing’s long awaited and comprehensive digital foray will continue gaining a strong foothold, entering into new areas, without glancing back over the shoulder, in 2021.

H. More new drug launches will move entirely digital:

It began in 2020. For example, dozens of new drug launches moved entirely to digital, for the first time in 2020. As a pharma leader remarked, with the traditional launch framework gone during the pandemic, “we had to throw out the playbook and really embed into people’s heads that playbook is no longer meaningful. It no longer works, and we have to think outside the box.” She further added: “There’s truly no bigger place for a marketer right now. This is the new world.” None can deny this fact as we enter into the new year.

I. Success requirements of pharma professionals will be different:

With significant transformation of pharma’s operational strategies, success requirements of pharma professionals will also be significantly different in the new normal. Quick capturing and fast adaptation to the changing customer behavior for multi-channel engagement digital platforms, will be fundamentally important – not just for business excellence, but for its long-term sustainability, as well. This is a totally new and highly cerebral strategic ballgame, where obsolescence of cutting-edge technology is much faster than anything in the tradition driven old normal.

J. More pharma companies will explore inorganic growth opportunities:

More pharma companies will look for acquisitions to bridge the strategic gaps, as AstraZeneca did in 2020.

Conclusion:

In 2021, Covid Mayhem may possibly be over with a gradual rollout of vaccines. But, the impact of utter disruptions that the pandemic has caused in multiple areas of businesses in 2020, especially within the pharma industry, would continue, as we step into 2021. As the drug industry overwhelmed by Covid-19, reset themselves with the digital transformation in the new normal -for growth beyond Coronavirus, one may also view this much awaited metamorphosis, as a blessing in disguise, as it were.

Overall, as the W.H.O observed very rightly on December 27, 2020: “We throw money at an outbreak, and when it’s over, we forget about it and do nothing to prevent the next one. This is dangerously short-sighted, and frankly difficult to understand.” He further added: “History tells us that this will not be the last pandemic, and epidemics are a fact of life.” I hope, all concerned will realize this point in 2021. Alternatively, we may need to keep ourselves prepared to move, in a similar way, from the current new normal to yet unknown next normal.

By: Tapan J. Ray     

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 


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