Written by on . Pegasus.

How will Covid-19 change the perceptions of pharma?

Mike Thomas explains why the pharmaceutical industry shouldn’t be shy about talking about the vital work it’s doing to battle Covid-19. 

As our TV broadcasts, social media news feeds and daily conversations focus on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to feel that the world is on lockdown. However, many industries are still in full flow with key workers in the NHS, supermarkets and delivery services risking their own health to support each and every one of us every day. And in laboratories across the country, many thousands in the pharmaceutical industry are striving to discover tests, treatments and vaccines that could potentially help us defeat Covid-19.

A treatment or vaccine will enable us to return to some form of normality and the ABPI has commented on the “significant global efforts” being made to combat Covid-19. Many pharmaceutical companies are contributing, and a consortium of companies (including the likes of Boehringer Ingelheim, GSK, Johnson & Johnson, MSD, Novartis, Pfizer and Sanofi) have announced a collaboration to accelerate the development, manufacture, and delivery of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for Covid-19, alongside the Gates Foundation. As of the end of March, around 20 companies had potential medicines in development, with the majority partnering with academia. Some, including GSK and Novartis, are making several compounds available from their libraries.

But beyond diagnostics and therapeutics, companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Takeda UK are supporting with their in-house expertise by helping medically trained company employees volunteer to support the NHS. Many companies are also offering products to key workers and I have been fortunate enough to support Thornton & Ross in providing emollient creams to combat the drying effects of excessive hand washing and facemask use, which have been gratefully received by NHS staff.

This response from the pharmaceutical industry provides a shining example of the advantages of the UK’s strong focus on science and research. Moreover, it presents a compassionate, collaborative and solutions focused response to the pandemic. And the efforts are not going unnoticed, with the media recognising the pharmaceutical industry as an important partner in fighting coronavirus. While reporting may not quite reach the levels of coverage elsewhere, such as the significant achievements of Captain Tom Moore to name one example, it’s positive none the less.

For many years, it has been less common that good news stories from the pharmaceutical industry break through into headlines in mainstream media. Instead, the industry has tended to hit the headlines for all of the wrong reasons; from the ongoing opioid crisis in the US to collusion over price hikes for essential medications and the anti-vaccination movement. Much of the positive news from the industry has typically gone unreported, either through a lack of public interest or through fear of breaching the rules of the ABPI – the industry’s self-regulating ‘stick’.

The negative implications of this have been clear. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer rated the pharmaceutical industry in the UK just above ‘distrust’ (at 50 points), which is significantly lower than other healthcare sub-sectors, such as hospitals and clinics which are ‘trusted’ (at 76 points).  This has led to a trust inequality between the informed public and the wider population.

As we continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic across the world, corporate communications are more important than ever. Pharmaceutical companies have an opportunity to share their good news stories about what can be achieved when some of the best innovators, technicians and strategic thinkers in pharmaceuticals work together towards a single goal.

This may already be changing things. In the US, recent data from the Harris Poll has shown that 40% of Americans have a more positive view of the pharmaceutical industry compared with before the pandemic began, but there’s a long road ahead. The industry still needs to deliver on treatments and vaccines, and there will inevitably be coverage that challenges companies who don’t collaborate with knowledge-sharing and possible criticism of the potential profits that may be made during this global crisis.

How the industry continues to react to this pandemic is not only important for all of us as individuals, but could see a step-change in the relationship that pharmaceutical companies have with the media, their patients, healthcare providers and the general public. We won’t know the full impact until the dust has settled and people have time to reflect, but how we look back on this time could change the perceptions of the industry for years to come.

is an Account Director in our Pharma & Life Sciences team at Pegasus. He has over 8 years' experience in healthcare, across communications and sales.