- While pharma companies experienced reputational boosts thanks to the rapid vaccine development, they are now facing increasing pressure to introduce new Covid treatments, as more and more experts assert that vaccination alone won’t be enough to handle the pandemic.
- Our media analysis found that the most commonly discussed treatments involve antibodies and antiviral drugs, while the companies with the strongest impact on the discussion, such as Regeneron, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, gained media attention due to their work on new experimental treatments as opposed to repurposing existing drugs.
- Building on its reputational momentum, the pharma industry needs to address some comms issues, such as keeping up with the innovation narrative, conveying the right balance between commercial and non-commercial agendas, and collaborating with the public sector more effectively.
Amidst all the noise around the Covid vaccines, there is a growing number of media outlets questioning whether vaccination alone would be enough to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. More and more commentators claim that while the new vaccines are hugely successful, there are still concerns in terms of vaccine hesitancy, the unknown duration of protection, and the efficacy against the ever-mutating variants.
Another major concern voiced in the mass media is that some countries don’t have enough vaccine doses: a recent analysis found that 87% of doses have been given in wealthier countries, despite new surges in cases and deaths in conflict and crisis-affected countries.
And in July, researchers warned that vaccination alone won’t stop the rise of new variants and in fact could push the evolution of strains that evade their protection. The findings, published in Nature Scientific Reports, supported an unpopular decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to advise even fully vaccinated people to start wearing masks again in areas of sustained or high transmission.
A growing body of opinion has started arguing that only a multifaceted approach utilising drug treatments alongside vaccines will prevent infections from spreading. Pharma companies and public health experts say what’s needed now is an easy-to-take treatment for the virus.
Against this backdrop, the UK is running the world’s largest clinical trial, called Recovery, one of the few trials to have given a definitive view on which drugs do and do not work. In the meantime, the University of Oxford’s Principle trial is looking for medicines which could help people recover from Covid symptoms at home, while the World Health Organization (WHO) is running the Solidarity trial to assess promising treatments in countries around the world.
Antibodies and antivirals
Analysing 881 articles published in top-tier English-language outlets between April – August 2021, we found that the use of antibodies that can target the virus, taken from either survivors’ blood plasma or made in a lab, was the most often discussed form of Covid treatment.
The most popular type of treatment was the one proven to be the most successful so far: monoclonal antibodies (antibodies made in a lab by cloning unique white blood cells). They are being designed by major pharmaceutical companies to seek out the Covid spike protein.
Many articles highlighted that monoclonal antibodies have proved effective not only in the treatment, but also in the prevention of Covid. Pharma companies took advantage of the fact that no two people produce the same antibodies when infected: scientists study thousands of antibodies to find one or two that are particularly potent and could serve to treat others. Those antibodies are then manufactured and infused into patients with an intravenous line (IV).
But commentators noted that because these antibodies need to be given via an IV, they are difficult to deploy quickly to a large number of people. In this regard, many think that an antiviral pill would be far more convenient. That’s why the use of antiviral drugs (drugs that directly affect the coronavirus’s ability to thrive inside the body) was the second most commonly discussed treatment in the conversation.
Experts have been comparing an antiviral pill for Covid to a course of antibiotics: you’d take one or two a day for five to seven days while you stay at home. But because it usually takes years to develop and approve new antiviral drugs, scientists are also looking at reusing existing drugs that have been approved for treating other viruses or diseases.
A very popular existing antiviral drug has been remdesivir, developed by the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences to treat Ebola. It received a lot of media attention when showed promising results early in the pandemic, but in October 2020, the World Health Organization advised that it “appeared to have little or no effect on hospitalised Covid,” in terms of death rates, length of stay in hospital, or seriousness of illness.
Media reports also highlighted that the search for a coronavirus pill has lagged behind the light-speed development of vaccines in part because antivirals haven’t gotten the same influx of cash from the federal government that vaccines have. A handful of experimental pills are now under the media spotlight, particularly the ones developed by Pfizer, and Merck and Ridgeback Pharmaceuticals.
Many journalists also pointed out that only corticosteroids have been proven effective against severe and critical Covid. The most often mentioned treatment was the steroid dexamethasone, which has been shown to cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators and by a fifth for those on oxygen.
In the meantime, WHO is conducting a clinical trial in 52 countries, studying three anti-inflammatory drugs, produced by Ipca, Novartis and Johnson & Johnson respectively, as potential treatments for Covid patients. It also recommended that certain hospitalised Covid-19 patients be given certain anti-inflammatory drugs produced by Roche and Sanofi.
The most often mentioned protein treatment involved interferon beta, a protein that the body produces when it gets a viral infection, and normally used for treating multiple sclerosis. Currently studied in a large trial in the UK, it’s hoped that it will stimulate the immune system, priming cells to be ready to fight off viruses.
New treatments get more attention than repurposed drugs
We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around Covid treatments.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
We found that companies that are working on new experimental treatments generally received more media attention than those repurposing already existing drugs.
For instance, Regeneron became the most influential company after numerous media publications reported that its Covid antibody cocktail, developed with Roche, reduces deaths in hospitalised patients who have not mounted their own antibody response. The therapy, REGEN-COV, has been granted emergency use authorisation for people with mild-to-moderate infection in the US.
According to many commentators, the findings are the latest evidence that such lab-made drugs not only prevent the worst outcomes of the disease when given early enough but also help prevent people from getting sick in the first place.
Others remarked that while vaccines are sufficient for the vast majority of people and are increasingly available, antibody drugs like Regeneron‘s could give doctors a new way to protect high-risk people who haven’t been inoculated or who may not respond well to vaccination, such as those taking drugs that weaken their immune system. That could be an important tool as rising coronavirus cases and dangerous virus variants threaten to outpace vaccinations.
Financial publications reported that Regeneron blew past analysts’ estimates for second-quarter profit and revenue and said it has seen a recent uptick in the use of its therapy by patients in the United States. This was in contrast to Eli Lilly, the second company by media impact in our sample, which was hit by weaker demand for its antibody therapy reportedly due to mass vaccine rollouts.
Eli Lilly gained its prominence as it was found that its antibody therapy was able to reduce Covid hospitalisations and deaths by 70%. In addition, Eli Lilly and its partner Incyte Corp said results from a late-stage study showed their Covid drug baricitinib reduced the risk of death in patients on mechanical ventilation. The FDA first approved Lilly‘s drug in combination with Gilead Sciences‘ remdesivir.
Furthermore, an arthritis drug called Olumiant, on which Lilly also partnered with Incyte Corp, was the latest arthritis medicine to be repurposed in efforts to combat COVID-19, with other prominent examples Actemra from Roche and Kevzara from Sanofi.
Other new antibody therapies in the media conversation included GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology‘s treatment, which significantly reduced hospitalisation and death among high-risk Covid-19 patients when given early in the disease. The treatment, sotrovimab, received an emergency use authorisation from the FDA in May, while the European Union’s drug regulator has also backed it.
The news that a new experimental oral drug to treat Covid-19 at the first sign of illness could be available by the end of the year made Pfizer the third most impactful company in the debate. The giant, which developed the first authorised Covid-19 vaccine with German drugmaker BioNTech, began in March an early-stage clinical trial testing a new antiviral therapy for the disease.
Many health experts were cited as saying that the drug, taken by mouth, could be a game-changer because people newly infected with the virus could use it outside of hospitals. Researchers hope the medication will keep the disease from progressing and prevent hospital trips, lightening the load of frontline workers.
It seems that Pfizer continues to reap reputational benefits during the crisis. One of the top US spenders on pharmaceutical marketing, it now reinvented itself, using some of its advertising inventory for product commercials to launch a corporate campaign instead.
But Pfizer was not the only company in the media discussion working on this sort of at-home antiviral treatment. Merck became prominent in the discussion as it’s working on an oral antiviral therapy medication called molnupiravir with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Merck also said the US government has agreed to buy about 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir, for about $1.2 billion.
In addition, Merck focused on conveying its CSR credentials as it said it wants to help address the raging new wave of Covid in India. The company partnered with five Indian generic drugmakers – Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Cipla, Torrent Pharma, Emcure Pharma and Sun Pharmaceutical Industries – to expand production and access to its experimental drug. The partnership gave the companies a license to supply Merck‘s molnupiravir to India and more than 100 low- and middle-income countries.
Other Indian firms also received some attention as the media followed closely the massive wave of cases in the country. For example, Cadila Healthcare received restricted emergency use approval from local regulators to use a Hepatitis C drug as a treatment for moderate COVID-19 in adults.
Another company which is not repurposing existing medicines but is working on a new therapy was Novartis, which teamed up with smaller Molecular Partners. The companies started clinical trials for an investigational medicine, with the aim of being able to seek approval next year. They said their drug showed “sustained binding against new variants”, including those identified in Britain, South Africa, Brazil and India.
Overall, many media stories involved partnerships between giants and smaller pharma companies or small specialised biotechs. As themes like collaboration have become very important as opposed to competition, strategic partnerships and alliances 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”.
Pharma continues emphasis on CEO comms
Alongside officials and experts, pharma execs were given a fair share of exposure in the media debate, in line with pharma’s new focus on CEO communications as a means to bolstering corporate branding and reputation.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was the most prominent spokesperson by influence score as he was quoted in many outlets saying that his company’s experimental treatment could be available before the end of the year. As with the discussion around vaccination, Pfizer did a good job of using its CEO as a PR vehicle.
Bourla also told reporters that the oral antiviral can be taken in the comfort of one’s home and can be used to treat COVID patients at the onset of the illness, way before they require critical care. He also added that one of the drug’s major benefits was saving people trips to the hospital to get treatment for Covid.
In fact, Pfizer was the company with the highest number of spokespeople. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, was cited as saying that tackling the Covid-19 pandemic requires both prevention via vaccines and targeted treatment for those who contract the virus: “Given the way that SARS-CoV-2 is mutating and the continued global impact of COVID-19, it appears likely that it will be critical to have access to therapeutic options both now and beyond the pandemic.”
And Charlotte Allerton, head of medicinal design at Pfizer, said that as early as March of last year, the company formed a team to design a molecule to specifically fight Covid.
The second most influential spokesperson came from the academic world: Martin Landray, professor of medicine at Oxford, who serves as co-chief investigator of the Recovery program alongside his fellow Oxford academic Peter Horby, the third most influential spokesperson in our sample.
Landray was also the joint chief investigator on the trial that found the antibody cocktail developed by Regeneron and Roche reduced deaths in hospitalised patients. He told reporters that people “have been very, very sceptical that any treatment against this particular virus would work by the time people get in hospital”.
He was also quoted as saying that if you haven’t raised antibodies of your own, you really would benefit from getting some, and that the antibody treatment also shortened the hospital stay of those who were seronegative and reduced their chances of needing a mechanical ventilator.
Another prominent academic in the discussion was Chris Butler, who co-led the Principle study, and who recommended utilising relatively cheap and readily available corticosteroid drugs used around the world in inhalers to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: “Medical practitioners around the world caring for people with COVID-19 in the community may wish to consider this evidence when making treatment decisions”.
In the meantime, Daria Hazuda, vice president of infectious disease and vaccine research at Merck, featured in the debate for her comments on the company’s partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and working on the compound molnupiravir: “We thought this molecule was really amazing”.
And when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would purchase from Merck 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir at a cost of $1.2 billion, David Kessler, chief science officer of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response team, said that the hope “is that we can get an antiviral by the end of the fall that can help us close out this chapter of the epidemic”.
Levi Garraway, Roche’s chief medical officer, was cited as saying that even with the availability of vaccines and declines in deaths from Covid in various parts of the world, we continue to see new hospitalisations from severe forms of the disease. When US health regulators approved Roche‘s arthritis drug Actemra for emergency use to treat hospitalised patients, she said that the drug is still needed despite the rising vaccinations in places such as Europe and the United States.
Even though his company was the most prominent one in our media sample, Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer wasn’t that visible. He was mainly quoted for his statement that despite high rates of vaccination, it’s estimated that tens of millions will remain unvaccinated in the US alone.
In their reports that Regeneron expects continuing demand for its therapy, journalists also quoted Schleifer as saying that the treatment of estimated eligible patients has gone up dramatically from somewhere in the low single digits to almost 25% to 30% more recently, as more than 50,000 doses of REGEN-COV are being ordered weekly.
Regeneron‘s cocktail was praised by commentators from the academic sphere such as Fiona Watt, who is internationally known for her contributions to the field of stem cell biology. She praised the company’s work, saying it will allow providers to prioritise treatment to those patients who can benefit from the therapy.
What comms issues should pharma address?
In its ongoing quest to offering new treatments, either by repurposing existing products or by introducing new ones, pharma companies should consider some pressure points when it comes to its relationship with the wider public:
- Keeping up with the innovation narrative. The rapid and successful development of vaccines set very high expectations for pharma. 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 medical innovation – so much so that we found Healthcare to take the lead as the most innovative sector in terms of its media resonance during the COVID-19 crisis. And as we saw, companies that are working on new treatments generally received more media attention than those repurposing existing drugs. A continued emphasis on innovation and the eventual success of the new treatments could finally help the industry to deal with the criticism that it is too slow to bring novel medicines to market. For more on this topic, take a look at our analysis: “mRNA’s Potential Beyond Covid: How Should PR Pros Communicate Medical Innovation?“
- Conveying a balance between commercial and non-commercial agendas. One of the main reasons for pharma’s bad reputation has been its pricing practices, especially in the US. Corporate spokespeople from pharma companies have usually tried to justify high prices with costly R&D investments and the need to protect intellectual property rights. Many critics have suggested that the focus of Big Pharma has been on serving the markets that can afford it. In the current crisis, this model is insufficient to meet the heavy medical demands and the public’s expectation. If pharma wants to frame itself as the saviour, it should convey a strong commitment to delivering affordable therapeutics against Covid.
- Rethinking “the patent game”. When it comes to drug development, many critics point out that pharma has a tendency to play the patent game to ward off competitors and to prolong the commercial dominance of brand-name medicines. Take Gilead as an example – it applied to the FDA for an orphan drug designation of remdesivir, i.e. it wanted the FDA to classify it as rare disease e treatment and benefit from longer patent protection. When the FDA did grant the orphan drug status, there was a public outcry. As a consequence, Gilead dented its reputation and went into a crisis management mode by asking the FDA to revoke the orphan designation. Such stories serve as a warning to companies with promising treatment candidates.
- Telling stronger partnership stories. For pharma in particular, comms executives need to operate differently and put a strong accent on partnership stories. As we saw from our analysis, the media has reported on an increasing number of pharma companies partnering with biotechs in order to strengthen their innovation potential. Our previous research into the relationship between corporate news flow and stock market reactions shows that the stock market responds in a positive manner to news about strategic partnerships in the pharmaceutical industry reflecting the market’s immediate response, and expectations of future firm value, resulting from the partnership.
- Collaborating with the public sector more effectively. When thinking about partnerships, one of the most important steps pharma should take is to reassess their relationship with the public sector and define the role they want to play for various stakeholders, including patients, healthcare professionals, the general public and government institutions. As McCann Health suggests, pharmaceutical companies will need to work closely with the public sector on orchestrating unified marketing and communication strategy across all stakeholders and channels.