The World’s battle against wave after wave unsettling onslaught of Coronavirus on human lives and livelihood continues, since December 2019. The first wave was triggered by the novel Covid-19 from Wuhan in China, the second by its deadly – Delta variant, and now – the third by Omicron. In India, first case of Covid-19 was reported on January 31, 2020.
Initially, global experts contemplated vaccines to prevent and contain Covid-19 and were the best hope for ending the pandemic. However, the effectiveness of existing Covid vaccines apparently declines against its subsequent mutants. This is evident even in India when the next variant Omicron commenced its onslaught.
The good news is, AstraZeneca has now claimed, a third booster shot of its Covid-19 vaccine willsignificantly boost antibody levels against the Omicron variant. However, Omicron may not be the last Covid-19 variant, as it appears today.
As the world grapples with the highly mutated Omicron, scientists have identified another new strain of the COVID-19 causing virus – in Southern France – known as ‘IHU’. This B.1.640.2 variant was reported by researchers at institute IHU Mediterranee Infection in at least 12 cases. However, it is too early to speculate on how this variant behaves as far as infection and protection from vaccines is concerned. This process is likely to take, at least, some more time.
Thus, in the current situation, when increasing numbers of even fully vaccinated individuals are getting re-infected caused by emerging mutants of Covid-19, and some more than once, the focus expanded towards more effective disease treatment. Some countries, such as the US, have decided for the 3rd booster shot of Covid-19 vaccine. Israel has even gone for the 4th booster shot of Covid vaccine. Be that as it may, in this fast-evolving scenario, even bright pharma marketers have been experiencing new strategic challenges, as we move on. Against the above backdrop, this article will delve into that space, focusing on some of the new trends of the new normal.
Pharma’s focus expands towards more effective Covid specific treatment:
Visualizing the way Covid-19 pandemic could possibly pan out in the foreseeable future, several global pharma and biotech companies have started focusing on specific treatment for this virus, ensuring speedy patient recovery.
For example, on November 21, 2020, the U.S. FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for a cocktail therapy of casirivimab and imdevimab for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in adults and pediatric patients.
Just a month later, on December 22, 2021, the U.S. FDA issued another emergency use authorization (EUA) for Pfizer’s (nirmatrelvir tablets and ritonavir tablets, co-packaged for oral use). This was also for the treatment of mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in adults and pediatric patients.
A day after Pfizer’s the first oral COVID-19 treatment, approval, on December 23, 2022, the U.S. FDA issued one more emergency use authorization (EUA) for Merck’s molnupiravir. This is the second antiviral pill authorized in the U.S, for the treatment of mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in adults. Nearer home, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) has also given EUA to Molnupiravir for the treatment of adult patients.
Interestingly, French regulators rejected Merck’s molnupiravir pill for low efficacy. They found other therapies were much more effective than this molecule. Even in India on January 06, 2022, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) also expressed safety concerns on Molnupiravir. Thus, it has not been included in the national list of Covid treatments in India. That said, such brilliant initiatives by several pharma companies in the battle for saving lives and livelihoods against Covid-19 pandemic, made those companies household names like never before.
Covid made several pharma companies household names, but not brands:
This point was restated in a recent article, published in the Fierce Pharma on December 22, 2021. It emphasized, Covid-19 ‘has brought the words of the pharma industry into people’s lives like never before: Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Merck have become household names.’ One may not remember the names of their Covid products, but will mostly know the company.
Many people have now started referring to Covid vaccines and drugs in generic names. As from the very beginning we started hearing people saying, like – I got ‘AstraZeneca Vaccines’, ‘Remdesivir’, or ‘Covid Cocktail therapy’. Company names usually followed the generic names in most cases. Although, ‘that’s been good for pharma’s reputation, but has left marketers in a bind about branding, commented the above article.
Most Covid-19 drugs and vaccine brands are on ‘emergency use approval’
In the Covid dominated year of 2021, drug and biotech companies managed to get USFDA approval for 55 new drugs. However, many of those drugs and vaccines got only Emergency Use Approval (EUA) and only under emergency use basis. This basically means, under EUA these companies did not get full marketing approval and were handicapped to go whole hog with the usual new brand marketing campaigns. This critical issue is expected to remain even in 2022.
In a situation, such as this, when the full scale branding initiatives can’t be undertaken, intenseCorporate Branding Campaigns, I reckon, would pay a rich dividend. This process will be quite different from creative new brand marketing in the old normal. Some global innovator companies are using even the mass media to promote their respective vaccines, albeit differently.
Such promotions include, Open Letter from the Company CEO, creative use of TV shows, messages of the head honchos through twitter or word of mouth campaigns – creating a snowballing effect. Alongside, healthcare marketing professionals are also intensifying their Covid-vaccine ad campaigns, sans brand names, to increase awareness and persuade more people to get vaccinated, soon.
To move in this direction, at least, during EUA period for Covid drugs and vaccines, hybridization of pharma marketing will be necessary in many cases, which won’t be an easy task for all, though.
Hybridization of pharma marketing – necessary – but not an easy task:
Based on experience of almost the last two years, many drug companies have realized that virtual-only customer engagement models have some serious shortcomings to fetch desired outcomes. This issue was studied and well-articulated in an article, published in the Reuters Events on November 30, 2021.
It found: “Virtual-only engagement can make it harder to create a real connection.” Further, as the paper articulated: “Even if HCPs share their video, we are losing the third dimension, hence losing out on parts of that personal component.’ Besides, although, online meetings are flexible regarding timing, if a doctor doesn’t dial-in, there is only a small chance the meeting will happen later that day, unlike waiting in a clinic for the interview to take place.
To address this issue, pharma players are now in various stages of creation and adoption of their respective hybrid marketing models. However, the process offers its own challenges. Working out customer-specific hybrid engagement models are a different ball game altogether- requiring very different skill sets, continuous training and above all a very different mindset.
As reported on January 06, 2022, rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the novel Coronavirus threatens to rewrite the business recovery timelines, even in India. Even recently, many CEOs and top executives have opined, businesses would have to live with Covid-19 uncertainty. The article further added: ‘Many companies have suspended their return-to-work plans and are reassessing business continuity measures as a third wave of the pandemic starts to surge.’ Most CEOs also expressed one of their top priorities was to ensure Covid-19 protocols were being followed and all employees were safe.
Similar situation arises for all Covid drugs approved under the EUA by the Drug Controller general of India, and are being marketed by Indian companies against non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements with the innovators. Thus, an analogous marketing issue exists surrounding all such EUAs, as the company concerned can’t undertake a full brand marketing campaign. This constraint is likely to pose a major marketing challenge for several potential Covid blockbuster drugs in India, at least in 2022, which marketers need to overcome, creatively.
From the above perspective of Covid-19 drugs and vaccines, companies would need to create novel and effective strategic pathways for performance excellence. At least, as long as Covid-19 mutants will continue to emerge, causing operational disruptions in the pharma business.
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.