Meetings, Clinical Trials and Supply Chain Disruption from a Virus We Never Heard of Until New Year’s Eve…

The world changes quickly. A few weeks ago, I published an article on LinkedIn “Communications Challenges for Medical Manufacturers as COVID-19 Epidemic Emerges”. It was meant to outline some thinking for the potential for the disruption of medical meetings, of clinical trials and of course, the much talked about potential for supply chain disruption.

We are no longer talking about potential. In the few weeks since then, the European Society for Radiology which was to have its annual meeting starting next week, postponed the meeting and HIMMS 2020 was also cancelled. At least one pharmaceutical company, one which by the way got FDA approval for its multiple myeloma product just last month, has indicated that sales will be impacted and clinical trials may be impacted which would in turn, have a negative effect on the bottom line. And the government of India announced that the export of 26 pharmaceutical ingredients would be banned for export, likely to have a direct effect on the production of some specific categories of medicines including generic medications and over-the-counter pain relief.

That raises many problems for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Of those, let’s concentrate on three:

  1. Meeting Cancellations – Companies will have data milestones in the coming months with the possibility that the traditional venue for unveiling and discussing such milestones – i.e., the medical meeting – may either be cancelled or attendance may be diminished. Medical meetings are a primary avenue of communications for the exchange of scientific information regarding new therapies and understanding the latest developments in specific therapeutic categories;
  2. Media Environment – Companies will be dealing with a media environment that is not particularly interested in new therapies, unless they happen to apply to COVID-19. A colleague of mine wrote an article, also on LinkedIn, that took a look at coverage in the New York Times over the past few months and he makes some solid recommendations. The viral pandemic (let’s call it what it is) is grabbing headlines, ink and reporter attention;
  3. Tough Questions – Companies that are lucky enough to be engaged with media during this time are likely to face questions and scrutiny over supply chain continuity, and to a lesser degree, clinical trial timelines and of course, profitability.

There are no magic bullets. But there is strategic thinking. Here is are a few thought starters related to the above considerations:

  1. Direct to Audience Communication – It is time to brainstorm over ways that companies can achieve at least some of the communications goals that would be associated with large medical meetings by employing digital means for conveying messages. If there was to be a poster presentation for a meeting, put it on video and make it available. In the absence of a meeting venue, develop and conduct webinars to cover presentations that were to occur. Think of every way possible to go virtual and execute upon it, then get the contents pushed out to patient groups, members of professional societies and investors.
  2. Focus on Trade Media – With COVID-19 taking up all of the ink in mainstreams, there is going to be a diminished capacity – and even a diminished interest by reporters – for non-COVID-19 news and data milestones – particularly those for non-life-threatening conditions – may get far less traction (or even none) by traditional means. For trade media, however, it is still their primary focus. Shift primary focus to these outlets and utilize bloggers and target online influencers more heavily and skillfully.
  3. Plan, Plan, Plan. The basis of planning is information and the situation is rapidly changing and doing so hourly. It is extremely important to know what is going on with respect to the numbers and the developments – both the medical and the policy ones – on an on-going basis and to consider their impact on one’s own operations. As the organizers of medical meetings grapple with whether or not to hold a meeting, individual medical manufacturing companies are imposing their own restrictions on employee travel and meetings. While data milestones are going to take a back seat, media scrutiny on supply chain flow will heighten. Scenario planning and messaging around worst case scenarios that considers both health implications and corporate reputation needs to be robust and recalibrated almost daily. Some pharmaceutical companies have reassured concerns about supply chain flow – but the situation on the ground can change quickly. Planning needs to be extensive.

For many, it is important to feel ahead of the curve. Under the current circumstances, there is no real curve as we catch up to determine the real extent of the outbreak and then can assess its real impact. There are many uncertainties – but one thing that is certain – traditional communications approaches are likely to require adjustment.

Photo Source: C.S. Goldsmith and A. Tamin

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