COVID-19 has completely changed the world. For a while we could not visit the pub, we could not enter a gym and we were restricted to working from our homes. In Australia, we were seemingly succeeding in our fight against this novel virus but now with renewed lockdowns in Victoria, it looks like COVID-19 is here to stay.
All industries have been impacted by the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 in one way or another. Here we take a closer look at some of the ways it has impacted the pharmaceutical industry in particular and what this means in the long run.
Changing ways of working
Where possible, working from home has been implemented. Even in countries where this sort of arrangement was not looked at favourably. Companies have pivoted their working arrangements, allowing colleagues to work in the safety of isolation. Has this reduced productivity? A report from research company Valoir suggests that productivity has only reduced by 1%. Given that the move to remote working was forced upon many individuals and companies, and happened very quickly, a 1% drop in productivity is impressive. The same study found that 40% of workers would prefer to continue working remotely post COVID-19. Although we are yet to see how companies will change their working arrangements it is clear that working from home is at the very least going to become more common. There are many advantages to working from home, and improving work-life balance can be key in increasing colleague buy-in.
The pharmaceutical industry has accelerated its digital transformation addressing patient centricity and virtual engagement. In this new world that we now find ourselves in, face to face interactions have seen diminishing returns and digital channels of communication are being prioritised. Pharmaceutical representatives are using these channels to inform and educate physicians in a way that best suits them. For the moment in-person meetings are all but gone.
In addition, remote call centre implementation has increased. Allowing staff to work from home and still support patients. As a result of this, the feasibility of virtual contact centres is being discussed. This could benefit both patients and employees as it reduces the requirement to live near to the physical location of the work sites. The increased talent pool and reduction in overheads at physical locations could potentially result in an improved service at a reduced cost. These savings can then be used to improve analytics and artificial intelligence support. Enabling companies to gain better industry insights to improve patient access.
COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains, with an over-reliance on a location for the production of key medicines leading to vulnerabilities in distribution. This novel virus has highlighted the fragility of the situation and the struggle to move products and source Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API). The risk of drug shortages has increased as it becomes more challenging to source raw materials. China and India dominate API production and supply. Throughout the crisis, lead times have been significantly increased. At a time when drug products are needed to not only treat the current pandemic but also to continue to treat other diseases, the risk to patients is increased. As of May, Chinese suppliers have come back in action, whilst US and European API producers were operating without serious impediment. Therefore it begs the question: how will global supply change to mitigate the potential risks to patients?
One solution could be to diversify supply chains. Reducing the reliance on single sourcing could vastly reduce the risk posed to patients. Spreading risk with localised regional hubs can help to soften the blow of major disruptions. Currently, there are around 1500 firms in the life science/healthcare sector that have facilities within China. One estimate has 80% of APIs coming out of China and India in one way or another. The risk this poses is huge. Being so reliant on one region to produce the foundational products propping up a whole industry is problematic. In a post COVID-19 future governments will need to ensure that supplies are drawn from their region and so we could see a shift to regional sourcing. This would be beneficial not just in reducing risk but in opening up opportunities for employment in new areas.
With reduced human contact and a need to protect clinical trial participants sponsor companies and sites are calling on technology to preserve their trial activities. In previous years innovative technology to create clinical trials that are faster and more efficient have been offered to the industry. Adoption of these new technologies has been slow, but COVID-19 has opened the door to innovation. With the need to carry out clinical trials and with COVID-19 taking away traditional methods. Caution has been thrown to the wind and we are finally seeing the advantages and benefits of progressive ideas within the space. Telehealth is being optimised to communicate with participants, removing the need for unnecessary travel. Companies like Science 37 are already at the forefront of this. They believe in making clinical trials more human and accessible offering access to virtual trials and digital transformation services amongst other things.
With the use of video and audio links, what is to say that Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) will have to spend so much of their time travelling between sites to monitor trials? Could the use of these technologies allow CRAs to function remotely even beyond this pandemic? The savings in time would be beneficial to CROs, who would see vast improvements in productivity whilst also making financial savings.
It seems that the industry is only going to go in one direction and that is away from the brick and mortar trials of the past.
It seems that COVID-19 has forced modernisation in the pharmaceutical industry. With the need to innovate and the opportunity to make savings, it is likely that a lot of the changes will remain in one way or another and become the new norm.