It is undoubtable that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an immediate knee-jerk reaction by the pharmaceutical sector, to mitigate immediate disruptions and seize opportunities. From halting or suspending clinical trials, the grounding of sales forces or opportunistic drug repurposing – the pandemic has shown how an industry which typically flies under the radar, can mobilise in a short period of time.

But has pharma’s response to COVID-19 been only temporary, or will it be long-term and transformational?

COVID has had a multifaceted impact across healthcare, thus motivating and necessitating redesigned strategies and catalysed activities. These activities have resulted in the emergence of key disruptive trends over the course of 2020, where some trends are likely to form the foundation upon which we usher in the age of a ‘New Normal’ for pharma.

As unpacked further by my colleague Javier Vega, COVID-19 shifted the public’s perception of Pharma through their use of unprecedented transparency. This trend of bringing the patient along for the journey has aided the evolution the Pharma’s understanding of their moral responsibilities and the value of public scrutiny. However, other key trends observed as a result of the pandemic also aligned more closed with Pharma’s daily bread & butter; namely the capturing of innovation through partnerships and entrenching cutting edge technology into their business-as-usual.

COVID-19 disrupted traditional partnership drivers, promoting increased cross-industry collaborations

Pharma investment during COVID-19 continued it’s upwards trajectory especially in the healthcare and technology ecosystems, where players formed timely alliances to identify COVID therapeutics or non-traditional healthcare players came together to aid disease tracking.

COVID therapeutics partnerships have brought into the spotlight that pharma players are stronger together rather than alone. Traditionally siloed in their operation to maintain competitive advantage, COVID has resulted in the quick and altruistic partnering of pharma players for the benefit of the population, through the sharing of knowledge and resources.

The perfect example of this rapid modular approach is that of Merck & Co (MSD), where the renowned vaccine stalwart joined the COVID therapies and vaccines race with three separate partnering agreements all announced on the same day. Despite being the obvious example, the Pfizer BioNTech collaboration complimented BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine platform with Pfizer’s powerhouse development and commercialisation capabilities. However, Pfizer recently revealed their radical rebranding as a pioneering science-centric company, likely informed as a result of their alliance’s success.

Headline honcho’s aside, this type of mutualistic knowledge transfer has also been demonstrated across the COVID treatment landscape including antibody partnerships by the likes of Eli Lilly and AbCellera, and the formation of a plasma alliance led by Takeda and CSL Behring.

We also saw partnerships by tech behemoths, and thus non-traditional healthcare players such as Alphabet Google and Apple coming to aid the COVID fight. They came together to jointly develop a Bluetooth enabled Contract Tracking App to alert people of recent contact with COVID patients.

Despite these partnerships being mutually beneficial at the time, these collaborations are likely to decelerate as urgency diminishes and players diverge from one another to maintain market share and competitive edge. However this tactic will serve as a great weapon in pharma’s arsenal, to be executed again for potential future emergent pandemics.

These bolt-on rapid COVID partnerships are however to permanently impact the manner in which pharma players seek to innovate their wider portfolios through inorganic growth mechanisms. Due to COVID-19, future investments are likely to be creative with an emphasis on disruption-proof capabilities. Where future deals may also be structured contingent on minimising risk, ‘at arm’s length’ to counter the financial strain felt by pharma during implementation of immediate pandemic response tactics. As my colleague Gala Farooq further details, COVID has undeniably reinforced the value partnering brings to Pharma as a mechanism to future proof their business.

Restrictions on traditional methods of stakeholder engagement opened the flood gates of pharma’s integration of digital solutions

COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the way in which pharma companies reach their key stakeholders. From traditional patient and doctor interactions, safely monitoring clinical trial participants or launching a new drug to the market – pharma had typically operated with a heavily face-to-face reliant field presence. However due to the need to minimise the burden on healthcare resources and practise social distancing, pharma are restricted in how they engage stakeholders. These restrictions have evolved in the minds of pharma execs from a hindrance to an enabler with the roll-out of telehealth tools.

Through innovative use of digital solutions, pharma were able to maintain clinical trial momentum, to educate and support patients and doctors during times of uncertainty, safely remotely monitor patients and reduce the impact of closed clinics on treatment initiation, administration and adherence. A few examples of this include AstraZeneca’s early pandemic partnership with telemedicine platform, Vidscrip, which enables doctors to pre-record videos which answer patient FAQs. Johnson & Johnson launched the “My Health Can’t Wait” campaign, which aims at encouraging patients to not postpone medical treatment. The site provides resources for patients and HCPs on the risks of delaying healthcare services due to COVID. Novartis also increased investment in clinical trial partner Science37, a specialist provider in site-less decentralised remote clinical trials. Amgen, Sanofi and Alphabet’s Google Ventures were also present in the latest funding round, which speaks to the increasing investment and focus on virtual trial providers.

Telehealth has always been that buzz word and ever looming trend set to disrupt the healthcare industry, however prior to the pandemic, few players had adopted wide-spread programmes that would have a tangible impact on their bottom line. But now, whether by force or favour, pharma has re-prioritised their plans to embrace these trends by implementing sales force automation tools and telehealth platforms. The surge in interest shown during COVID-19 and benefits yielded prove that these tools will become common place within the industry.

Disruptive trends implemented during COVID-19 set to stick in 2021 and beyond as new industry essentials

We can be sure that pharma will never operate again as it did before the virus was a figment of our imaginations. However, in order to remain competitive in this “new normal”, disruptive trends such as adaptive partnering and the implementation of flexible digital solutions will become an industry prerequisite. Any naysayers will likely be left behind as these trends aim to prioritise and accelerate new and preconceived innovation mechanisms, which will overcome existing bottlenecks and revive the sector for the long term.

So although their original mission may have been as pharma sector lifesavers, agile partnering and digital adoption will lay the foundation of a new pandemic-proof Pharma legacy.