Post Covid-19 Lockdown: Is Pharma Industry Ready?

It’s over a month now since national lockdown in India came into force to win the war against Covid-19. Many promises and apprehensions about whether or not Covid-19 will keep ravaging human life, continue surfacing. As it appears today, whatever best happens post May 03, 2020, the Coronavirus outbreak is going to change the way we live and the businesses used to operate, in many respects, till an effective vaccine comes, at the very least. This change also includes the health care, in general, and the pharmaceutical industry, in particular.

It is obvious now that Covid-19 will stalk the planet for a long time to come. On April 22, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) also reiterated: ‘Make no mistake, Coronavirus will be with us for a long time.’ This vindicates many apprehensions against an early promise of winning the Covid19 war decisively in 21-days or even by May 03, 2020, or whenever the national lockdown is phased-out in a calibrated manner. Further, W.H.O has also cautioned: “Most countries are still in the early stages of their epidemics. And some that were affected early in the pandemic are now starting to see a resurgence in cases.”

As on April 26, 2020, the recorded Coronavirus cases in India has sharply climbed to 26,496 and 825 deaths, with the Union Health Ministry saying on April 23, 2020: ‘Doubling rate of Covid-19 cases in country is now 10 days.’ Whereas, on the same day, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) also said, ‘for now, it is very difficult to tell when a peak state of COVID-19 pandemic in the country will arrive.’

The life-changing disruptions that Covid19 has caused, and may continue to cause in the near future, has apparently made a significant impact, also on how the healthcare consumers think about the available disease treatment solutions, including buying medicines. Thus, in this article, I shall, focus on this area.

Why winning the Covid-19 war can’t be immediate: 

Covid-19 pandemic brought the drug industry under a sharp focus of the entire world, with an expectation to win the war against this deadly and invisible virus. This solution could be anything – an effective prevention, such as, with a vaccine, or a curing the infection with a drug, or even a mechanism that is able to make the virus less contagious. There are still no scientifically proven and approved drugs or vaccines for Covid-19. Although, many trial and error experiments are in progress, mainly based on anecdotes and gut-feeling, for the respiratory disease caused by Coronavirus.

The good news is, since January 2020, after scientists in China provided the virus’s genetic sequence, over 40 teams of global drug companies and the academia, are working on a vaccine and drugs for Covid-19. As of now, six Coronavirus vaccines are on clinical trial. Last Thursday, human safety trial of Oxford University developed Covid-19 vaccine, with the first two of 800 healthy volunteers, has commenced. Meanwhile, Serum Institute of India (SII) has tied-up with the Oxford University to manufacture the vaccine in India, if the trial succeeds.

Some bad news in this area also came by, such as, ‘remdesivir’ – the well-hyped drug, thought to be one of the best prospects for treating Covid-19, failed to have any effect during the first full trial. However, Gilead – the drug company developing this product has said, ‘the findings were inconclusive because the study was terminated early.’

The bottom-line is, although, first tests for more new vaccines may commence within a few months, the final regulatory approval of these will take much longer - at least 18 months, i.e. not before 2022, according to W.H.O. Meanwhile, some disruptive changes within current health care delivery systems, involving both behavior and transaction practices of key stakeholders, may prompt equally disruptive changes in the Indian health care delivery mechanisms. These changes are likely to have unforeseen impact on several pharma operations, critical for business excellence in the drug industry.

Commonly followed procedures for the Indian healthcare system:

The procedures that most health care consumers currently follow for healthcare in India, require patients to be physically present in most touchpoints of a disease treatment process. These include, doctors, chemist shops, hospitals, diagnostic clinics, among others. During the national lockdown period, redressal of non-Covid-19 related common health issues, has been a great challenge for many people, such as:

  • visiting a doctor
  • going to a hospital outdoor
  • procurement of medicines from retail shops for chronic conditions
  • visiting a diagnostic clinic even for follow-up – previously advised by a doctor

This happened primarily due to the need of compliance of social distancing and mostly out of fear of getting the Covid-19 infection. Fortunately, the available digital platforms to address the pressing common health issues, proved to be of immense help to many.

Pharma business has also been greatly impacted: 

Driven by initial panic buying of regular medicines by the people, for the lockdown period and may be beyond, monthly sales of pharma might show a spurt. But, that is unlikely to be the real picture for a medium to long term. Otherwise, like many other industry sectors, pharma business has also been greatly impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak, across its various domains – right from planned R&D – through manufacturing, sales and marketing – to supply chain.

The early adopters to the new normal will be the outright winners:

For example, meeting a doctor for product detailing following the conventional chain of activities, and simultaneously maintaining strict ‘personal distancing’ or ‘social distancing norms, may not be the same again. The changes required by the pharma companies to make this process effective and productive, may also be disruptive in nature.

No-one can accurately predict toady, how exactly the important business operations can be resumed, ensuring full health-safety for all and with compromising on the effectiveness and productivity of business. Nevertheless, one thing for sure, lockdown during Covid-19 pandemic has brought the possibility and the opportunity of going digital to the fore, for both – the healthcare business and also its consumers, including various other stakeholders. The early adopters to the new normal are expected to be the outright winners.

Green shoots of digitalization within healthcare consumers and providers: 

As digital transformation at health care consumers and providers level, gain a critical mass, the healthcare business would require to be not just digitalized, but also digitally innovative. The situation would demand from them to be much more ‘customer centric’ on digital platforms, as the locked down – homebound health care consumers, complying with ‘social distancing’ norms, get increasingly more digitally empowered.

Bain & Company in its March 20 ‘Brief’, titled ‘How the Coronavirus Will Transform Healthcare in China,’ discussed some of these issues from China perspective, which are already visible there. To illustrate this point in this deliberation from the Indian perspective, let me draw examples from the country’s health care consumers’ standpoint.

Is the traditional health care system slowly undergoing a metamorphosis?

The overall impact of Covid-19 outbreak in India has made visiting general practitioner’s (GP) clinics, pathological labs or even hospital emergency facilities, a tough challenge for many patients. This is primarily out of fear of getting a Coronavirus infection from others during the process, with strict compliance to ‘social distancing’ becoming a top priority for many. Consequently, traditional healthcare related activities in India, is likely to undergo an early metamorphosis.

Being literally locked down at home, a good number of healthcare consumers in India, are utilizing innovative digital platforms, for common illnesses or follow-up consultations, such as:

  • for medical consultation on digital platforms, e.g., Skype, Facetime etc.
  • getting diagnostic tests done at home by requesting through digital apps,
  • sending test reports to doctors digitally,
  • getting doctors prescription through digital mode,
  • ordering medicines through e-pharmacy apps by uploading prescriptions,
  • getting medicines delivered at home after e-payment,
  • repeating the same process whenever required.

An upside of the situation: 

The upside of the situation is, these patients are feeling more digitally empowered and self-reliant to get non-too-serious ailments addressed against all odds. Some of these practices, such as, online consultation with doctors, getting most of the medical tests done at home, buying medicines through e-pharmacies, I reckon, may continue even after calibrated withdrawal of the national lockdown in India.  The net impact of all could trigger a meaningful attitudinal change in patients, especially towards health care delivery processes, in general.

The healthcare industry is ready to log on to this digital mode? 

Many early adopters in the global pharma industry, are going for digitalization within various functional domains of the company, at a varying scale. This has started happening in India, as well. However, as social distancing becomes the new normal in the foreseeable future, how prepared are the pharma companies to adopt themselves with the increasing number of digitally empowered consumers, is still unclear. More importantly, how will the industry meet new demands at various points of transaction and interaction with various critical stakeholders, such as, doctors, in the post Covid-19 eraof social distancing, ensuring health safety of all?

Another requirement that should form the bedrock of the grand integrated corporate strategy of a customer-centric pharma business, necessarily, in the changing times. This is – all decisions in this area must be based on a huge pool of contemporary data, analyzed by sophisticated data analytics and thereafter, the strategic and tactical pathways need to be charted, desirably, through skillful application of Artificial Intelligence (AI), because of evolving complex and multi-dimensional health care needs of the consumers.

Alongside, telemedicine in different new formats – even for GP level consultations, besides, drug procurement through e-payment from approved e-pharmacies by uploading doctor prescriptions, signal a great potential in the years ahead. This appears to be very close to reality, especially, going by the W.H.O prediction for a long-haul Covid-19 battle, where compliance with ‘social distancing,’ is one of the basic requirements of health safety for all.

Conclusion:

‘Month of lockdown impedes virus – a long battle lies ahead’. As the former President of the Unites States twitted on April 25, 2020, ‘If we want life to approach anything like normal anytime soon, we need a comprehensive testing program. It’s not going to be cheap, but it will ultimately pay off many times over in saved lives, saved businesses, and saved jobs.’

In any case the crux of the matter is, Covid-19 is not going to vanish soon, even after scaling down of the lockdown in a calibrated way. Moreover, the fear, if not the panic of a large population in India and around the world, on the possibility of getting infected by Covid-19, will continue – till one does not get vaccinated or acquire ‘herd immunity’ in a different way. Meanwhile, related behavioral changes and habits, of a large number of people, including health care consumers, will continue taking place.

From this perspective, besides the existing ones, once the lockdown-period-converted ‘e-consumers’ of health care get used to the new digital mode of availing healthcare services against e-payments, it could have a snowballing impact on many others. That will help usher in a new paradigm of medical consultation, follow-up interaction, disease diagnosis, drug procurement and all related transactions, through digital platforms.

Having experienced the convenience and user-friendliness of the digital mode, during an extended period of social or physical distancing and other new normal, instead of time-consuming legwork, it seems unlikely that the majority will try to go back to the traditional mode of pre-Covid 19 era. In that situation pharma companies will have no option but to necessarily re-engineer the business operations, bringing disruptive digitalization at the center of any strategy formulation related to mainly patients and doctors, besides others.

Covid-19 prompted lockdown and the post lockdown period, I reckon, is unlikely to be a ‘switch-off’ and ‘switch-on’ type of a situation for anyone or any industry, as threat of getting Coronavirus infected will continue for quite some time. The need of the hour for pharma players in India, therefore, is gaining deep insight, through continuous data capturing and analysis, on each component of the changing market dynamics – prompted by Coronavirus pandemic. The point to ponder, therefore, is pharma industry getting ready for a possible disruptive change in the future environment?

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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