Life Sciences and Pharmaceuticals: COVID-19 Reaction and Industry Outlook

Blog 28 Apr 2020 . Katie Bradshaw
Karin Selfors
Global Segment Head
Consumer Products, Life Sciences, Industrial

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pontoon has been benchmarking and analysing the business response from our customers and the industries we support. For the Life Sciences industry though, the outlook is much different than other industries that are unrelated to the direct fight against COVID-19.  

The following analysis represents market research and customer data from Pontoon’s global Life Sciences segment portfolio. Resulting from conversations with our customers and prospects and market review, we have examined COVID-19’s short to long term effects for the Life Sciences industry.   

Short-Term Effect  

Operational Response  

From the onset of the global COVID pandemic, Life Sciences companies responded quickly to protect their workforce and customers and secure their essential operations. Organisations immediately addressed their core operations, such as manufacturing and distribution of certain products, and identified areas that could potentially be deemed non-essential, such as clinical trials, product launches, and sales of non-essential items.  

We found that 100% of organisations quickly reviewed their workforces and made swift changes to work locations that had essential workers still reporting. Many have new entry requirements, including assessment forms and temperature checks, and have provided, or are requiring, Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). When possible, efforts have been made to promote social distancing, such as changes in desk and equipment locations, changes to shifts and break schedules, and the shutdown of common areas and conference rooms. For production and distribution sites, social distancing is not always possible so there is a heightened emphasis on cleaning and awareness to promote protection with PPE.  

For one Pontoon pharmaceutical customer, the short-term focus is manufacturing and distribution for anything related to COVID-19 and the flu, which paused the production for other products in the interim. As those production sites ramp up, so does the need for supporting contingent workers.  

To reward and encourage essential workers, many companies have increased compensation or are providing bonus pay. An increasing number of production workers have opted to stay home though instead of work, citing concerns for getting sick or passing it along to a family member. In some locations, the social unemployment benefits from governments have also been a deciding factor because they outweigh the compensation they would receive by going to work, even with the added bonuses.  

There has also been unprecedented collaboration amongst corporations in the pursuit of COVID-19 vaccines and testing. Organisations like Sanofi and GSK or Pfizer and BioNTech are combining their resources to speed up the research and development process and quickly scale manufacturing and distribution. Paul Hudson, CEO of Sanofi, is quoted: “As the world faces this unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone. That is why Sanofi is continuing to complement its expertise and resources with our peers, such as GSK, with the goal to create and supply sufficient quantities of vaccines that will help stop this virus.”  

Business response  

The assessment on core operations has put many products and projects on hold, with the future still unclear for when and how they will begin again. Beyond internal capabilities and projected bandwidth, there are ongoing supply chain concerns that are limiting the ability to move forward.  

An increasing number of clinical trials are being halted due to COVID-19. Many trials take place in hospital settings and these facilities are at capacity with COVID-19 patients or discharging many non-critical patients to reduce the risk of spread. For client trials, most trial participants are autoimmune compromised, so the risk of them catching the virus is too great to proceed. The health care staff that administer trials are changing roles to support with the extra influx of COVID-19 patients. In locations where hospital and personnel bandwidth have been properly staffed, safety is an utmost concern.  

Another business area affected in Life Sciences organisations is product revenues. Even before COVID-19, we were seeing the traditional pharmaceutical sales roles shift from onsite relationships with doctors and practices to more non-biased virtual marketing relationships. Furthermore, doctors’ offices around the world have cancelled non-essential visits for the immediate future, leading to a significant decrease in new prescriptions ordered. Many product launches have also been paused until more is known about COVID-19 and normal operations resume. All these factors have resulted in decreased sales revenues for Life Sciences companies.  

Businesses have also responded quickly with changes to their hiring processes and remote work policies. All organisations have moved to remote work where possible, including digitising hiring and onboarding processes. Changes to drug tests and background checks have varied client to client. Some have altered due to limited access to testing clinics for drug tests, government agencies for background verification, and schools and universities for education checks. Some customers have waived parts of this process, with the caveat it must be completed once facilities are reopened, while other customers have remained fully committed to these company requirements.  

It’s important to note too that the Pontoon hiring program implementations in this portfolio have not been put on hold. Implementations continue as business as usual and remain a priority for our customers.  

Mid-Term Effects  

These immediate business responses will have lasting effects and will mould how Life Sciences organisations operate and innovate in the future.  

As an example, the cancellation of non-essential doctors’ visits will lead to the increased adoption of telehealth, as practices aim to bring support to their patients as quickly as possible. The telehealth industry is experiencing unprecedented growth and this trajectory will continue long after the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments are working with these companies and practices to ensure protective measures are in place for patients to protect against fraud and privacy concerns.  

One Pontoon customer is offering healthcare organisations use of its cloud-based clinical collaboration platform at no-charge during the COVID pandemic. This type of access to real-time clinical video on a private, secure, and HIPPA-compliant platform allows experts to collaborate and advise virtually and will remain vitally important as telehealth continues to grow.  

The remote engagement of sales reps will change the responsibilities of this long-standing role. Sales were often determined by the strong relationships nurtured by onsite and visiting sales reps. The future is more dependent on remote product marketing and digital content. The change from onsite to virtual will give doctors more time to spend with patients and should result in an increased standard of care.  

In the mid-term outlook, organisations will have to carefully pick which Research and Development projects will resume post-COVID-19. Companies will have limited resources to continue which correlates in part to the decrease in revenues during COVID-19. There will also be decreases in government funding, as previously allocated funds may be moved to support pandemic related programs.  

As with most industries, the increase in a remote workforce and virtual hiring and onboarding will continue post-COVID-19. 

Long-Term Opportunities and Remaining Questions  

While the Life Sciences and Pharmaceuticals industry is essential to the COVID-19 solution, it comes at a cost. Organisations in this sector are racing against the clock to develop and manufacture coronavirus tests and vaccines while other research efforts and products in development are put on hold. This change – from strategic to noncritical – will certainly have long-term impacts on companies and the industry alike. 

Areas of Opportunities   

For Life Sciences organisations, an area of opportunity in the long-term are Mergers and Acquisitions. With start-ups and smaller companies running out of cash flow during the pandemic crisis, corporations can seize the opportunity and boost long-term outlook. According to Ernest Young, companies will be able to “pursue bolt-on acquisitions of late-stage assets that were too expensive prior to the onset of the current pandemic. Some biotechs and smaller MedTechs or biopharma companies with a promising pipeline but that cannot afford sustainability due to cash flow and liquidity concerns could be appropriate targets.”  

Automation is another area that will be widely examined and see significant growth post-COVID-19. Companies will analyse what steps in all business operations, from people operations to sales to manufacturing and more, can be augmented with automation.  

Long Term Questions  

Since we have yet to see the end of the pandemic and understand what reopening communities and economies will bring, it’s unknown what the long-term effects will be from these actions. Many questions remain for the future of Life Sciences. For example, what is the effect of halting so many clinical trials? How will the overall health of global populations be affected by the cancellation of non-essential doctors’ appointments or lack of access to telehealth influence the overall health of populations? By delaying research on chronic illnesses or postponing product launches?  

We will be watching this space closely to better understand the outcomes from this unprecedented time and what it means for employers and employees alike. 

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