Our recent pharma analysis concluded that journalists have started to report more favourably of pharma’s work and that companies are experiencing a reputational boost as the pandemic highlights their role in developing medications and vaccines.

This comes at a time when 40% of Americans have a more positive view of the pharma industry than they did before the pandemic began, according to the latest Harris Poll survey. Moreover, data-intelligence company Morning Consult found that the pharmaceutical industry’s net favorability increased this year to 17% from 13% (net favourability is defined as the share of people with a favourable impression minus those with an unfavourable impression).

But it’s interesting to note that while the Pharma subsector dominated the overall Healthcare COVID-related media coverage (77% of all news was about pharmaceutical companies), its share of voice in the news about partnerships fell to 56% at the expense of the Biotechnology and Health services subsectors.

We found that the pandemic has put biotech companies in the media spotlight: at first, small biotechs Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Moderna and Novavax were the companies with the greatest centrality in the debate. They were among the first companies which were mentioned by publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times for seeing their shares surge as the coronavirus spread further.

The rallies were sparked when the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a nonprofit formed in 2016 to fund and shepherd the development of new vaccines against emerging infectious diseases, announced it would provide $11 million in funding to Inovio and Moderna to develop vaccines against the coronavirus.

Biotechnology is still a sector which, unlike pharma, is not that much in the public eye. However, the dynamic media conversation around the coronavirus has already started to change that.

Biotech and public trust

Our research on media coverage of over 600 healthcare companies reveals the increasingly central role biotech firms have played since the start of the pandemic.

We found that the pandemic has led to an overall increase in biotech coverage compared to its pre-Covid levels by 20%, whereas tech coverage, for example, increased only by 14%.

This provides an opportunity for biotech companies to not only attract investor interest but also to augment their most important intangible asset – their corporate reputation. This would mean putting a stronger emphasis on PR and going beyond the financial media in order to establish a strong presence in a wide variety of mainstream news outlets.

In this regard, biotechs have an advantage over pharma as they are considered healthcare’s bright spot in terms of public trust. The most recent edition of Edelman’s Trust in Healthcare report showed that trust in biotech increased in many markets, while pharma has taken the bulk of the blame for the high costs of healthcare.

Since launching in the early 1980s, the narrative around the biotechnology industry has been shaped by inconsistent investment results, especially after a biotech bubble burst in the early 2000s. This has led commentators to be extra critical when it comes to the ‘hot areas’ of biotech, since it’s quite possible that companies burn through hundreds of millions of dollars, often with nothing to show for it.

But due to the very nature of their work, biotechs are well-positioned to tap into the mainstream media’s growing focus on topics involving corporate social responsibility (CSR) by highlighting the public value of their research and development. From a strategic communication standpoint, this would also mean tapping into the recent understanding of corporate reputation as implying purpose before profit and delivering value to all stakeholders instead of merely focusing on the interests of stockholders.

Biotech’s awareness problem

However, COVID-related media coverage around biotech companies in the US still lagged behind pharma and tech company coverage, as we found using our COVID-19 Business Impact Tracker. Biotech’s share of voice was only 3% compared to 17% for pharma.

Despite its central role in the pandemic, biotech’s 3% share of voice also lagged behind major industries such as Automobile (8%), Banking (6%), Aerospace (6%) and Retail (5%).

These industries were in the front rows of the media discussion mainly because of the pandemic’s impact on their operations and financial results. For instance, in the automobile industry, which followed pharma in terms of share of voice, particularly prominent were Toyota, Honda, and Fiat Chrysler, which closed plants across the US and Canada, joining a rapidly growing list of car manufacturers like BMW and Vauxhall that were shutting down their European operations.

This goes to show that unlike pharma, biotech’s contributions to battling the pandemic didn’t manage to hit many headlines and to break through the clutter of Covid-related stories around more mainstream industries.

Naturally, sectors like automobiles and banking, which include some of the world’s best-known brands, would easily attract more media attention than the niche biotech brands, which are by far more familiar to investors than to the general public. But now is the time when comms professionals working in the biotech sphere should highlight their industry’s contributions to society.

Our analysis also found that there was a slight increase in specialised biotech coverage (gene therapy, cell therapy, immunotherapy, biological clocks, etc.) during the pandemic: 5% compared to pre-Covid period. However, the volume of specialised biotech coverage in top-tier media outlets in the US decreased dramatically (by 32%) during the pandemic.

This could be attributed to the fact that much of the medical media coverage has been exclusively focused on Covid at the expense of other medical research.

But there’s an opportunity for biotech comms to be seized post-pandemic: while the media coverage of medical breakthroughs (such as orphan medicines) has been generally increasing since 2000, the pandemic has led to an unprecedented public interest in medicine and healthcare. Biotechs could tap into this newly created hunger for specialised information by raising awareness of how their research leads to medical breakthroughs.

Comms professionals could also use the crisis to shape the narrative around biotech’s inherent reputational challenges. Volatility often pockmarks that space and there are well-known risks like clinical failures, regulatory approval setbacks, commercialisation problems, and loss of exclusivity/patent expiration. In addition, over-promising and under-delivering in the past have resulted in an element of residual scepticism towards biotech.

As some analysts note, biotech is a risk-taking enterprise, while pharma is about managing and diversifying risk. In this regard, a strategic communications priority for the biotech sector would be to explain to the public that volatility and uncertainty are default positions when a company is working towards pushing the frontiers of medical knowledge and expanding the horizons of scientific understanding as a whole.

Top biotech stories

To find out which biotech stories did brake through the clutter of the Covid media discussion, we used Commetric’s COVID-19 Business Impact Tracker found in our analysis of the most central companies in the Covid discussion:

Gilead has been the most influential biotech as it quickly reached worldwide prominence with its remdesivir, now called Veklury, which boasted a promising early data early in the pandemic, as researchers scrambled to find medicines.

Gilead became the only company to win Food and Drug Administration approval for a COVID-19 treatment and is currently making significant money from sales of Veklury, which generated $2.8 billion in 2020 despite controversy over the drug’s price and actual effectiveness. For example, the World Health Organization has recommended against the use of Veklury, claiming it does not improve survival rates or other outcomes.

However, Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day said it has been already adopted in the US as the drug has become standard treatment in the absence of other, more powerful medicines: “Gilead continues to play a central role in the pandemic, with Veklury now treating one in two hospitalised patients in the US.” Cumulatively, about 1 million people have received Veklury, Gilead said.

Gilead was also mentioned for its $21 billion acquisition of Immunomedics, a leader in next-generation antibody-drug conjugate technology, which seemed to be 2020’s biggest biopharma deal.

But AstraZeneca came up with an even larger one by paying $39 billion to buy Alexion in a cash-and-stock deal, driven by its ambition to build a stronger presence in immunology.

In addition to the deal with AstraZeneca, Alexion owed its centrality for saying it would pause enrollment in a phase 3 trial of rare disease med Ultomiris in patients with severe COVID-19 after the drug fell short of its efficacy mark. Their interim analysis of the trial’s independent monitoring committee found Ultomiris failed to benefit patients any more than supportive care.

Meanwhile, Qiagen announced plans to launch a rapid portable test that can detect Covid antigens in people with active infections in less than 15 minutes and process on average around 30 swab samples per hour using a small digital detection system.

The antigen test is designed for environments that require a high volume of fast and accurate test results. The company positioned the product as marking an important step towards decentralised mass testing that health authorities all over the world have been urgently seeking.

Amgen was featured in the media debate as researchers at the University of California said they may have found a new market for its drug Corlanor: to treat COVID-19 “long haulers.” Initially, Corlanor won FDA approval to treat chronic heart failure in 2015, but it didn’t generate much enthusiasm in the cardiology community and was quickly overtaken by Novartis’ Entresto, which was seen as having a better risk-benefit profile.

One of the small biotechs which were central in the very beginning of the pandemic, Inovio, now expects to start a late-stage U.S. study of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine candidate in the second quarter of 2021. The company lagged behind other developers like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna in the race to develop a vaccine because of regulatory delays: the FDA had put the Phase III portion of the study on hold in September, as the agency sought more information.

In the meantime, a rheumatoid arthritis drug developed by Genentech proved to be effective in benefitting patients who have COVID-19-associated pneumonia. Reports noted that 85% of participants in the trial were from minority racial and ethnic groups, which are historically underrepresented in clinical studies.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals was another biotech which received a reputational boost after saying its COVID-19 antibody cocktail treatment, which received emergency use authorisation in the U.S. in November, generated $145.5 million in sales in the fourth quarter of 2020 as part of its earnings. The U.S. government has agreed to buy up to about 1.5 million doses of the therapy.

Beyond the pill

The opportunities and problems facing biotech comms are also pertinent for the increasing number of pharma companies which partner with biotechs in order to strengthen their innovation potential.

Strategic partnerships and alliances with biotechs could be the solution in pharma’s quest for relevance – something problematic for the sector’s image. According to a recent study by Danish market research company Caliber, in most countries, the lowest score given by respondents to pharma companies is for Relevance, which is defined as “standing for something people can relate to”.

Relevance is also the perception area most positively impacted by COVID-19 according to the study, indicating the opportunity for the sector these days. Caliber’s analysis shows that familiarity also plays a role, with the more well-known companies being less liked and trusted.

In 2020, most pharma M&A deals focused on specific drugs from biotechs, which the biggest pharma deal of the year is AstraZeneca’s late-breaking offer to buy Alexion, one of the top biopharma takeover prospects in the last couple of years. Pharma, which didn’t have the best reputation for innovation before the pandemic, has relied on M&A deals to bolster its profile as an innovative industry.

The acceleration of Strategic Alliances activity over recent years has been triggered by the development of integrated care models and the rising importance of digital solutions.

The last decade has seen the emergence of several new concepts (integrated care, personalized medicine, remote monitoring, telemedicine, etc.) that are bringing a fresh new paradigm in the management of healthcare. To transform these concepts into marketed solutions, pharmaceutical companies need to acquire new expertise out of their traditional competency area. Strategic Alliances’ activity between biopharmaceutical companies and medtech/tech companies (which have knowledge of Digital/Hardware and User Experience) will be needed to bring to market innovative end-to-end services.

Pharmaceutical companies need to go “beyond the pill” and provide fully integrated solutions to healthcare centres, in which the medical device/diagnostic platform plays an increasingly important role. These integrated offers facilitate care delivery for physicians and centres, focus on patients’ compliance/quality of life.

As the shift towards biotechnology, in general, is becoming more prominent – biotechnology products are forecast to take a majority share in the top 100 drugs by sales by 2026, with 55% of the total top 100 product sales in 2026, up 16% compared to 2012 – biotech could well become the saviour of the industry’s reputation.

Download our “Pfizer: Corporate Reputation Analysis” report to learn more about how we measure corporate reputation through media data.