• During the pandemic, global health diseases have been discussed in two main ways: as being put on the sidelines because of the immediate threat of Covid, or as being finally treatable thanks to the advances in vaccine science turbocharged by the crisis.
  • Our media analysis found that HIV, diabetes and malaria were the most commonly discussed global health diseases in the recent media debate, followed by plague, tuberculosis and Ebola.
  • As it introduced the first-ever malaria vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline emerged as the most influential company in our media sample, followed by Gilead, which cemented its long-acting HIV ambitions.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed healthcare systems around the world, having a knock-on effect on the diagnosis and treatment of other diseases. Although social distancing and lockdowns have reduced diagnosis rates of infectious diseases such as seasonal influenza, many people have avoided seeking help for other health problems due to lockdowns and avoidance of medical settings.

Meanwhile, treatment for some diseases and conditions had to be postponed in many cases due to the immediate threat of the pandemic consuming health systems and their resources. Scientific research around the world has also focused on Covid, potentially delaying research and breakthroughs in other areas.

Furthermore, other infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis were put on the sidelines, despite still being very real problems, particularly in more vulnerable populations. An assessment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation came to the conclusion that vaccine coverage in health systems had been pushed back around 25 years in the first 25 weeks of the pandemic.

This is one side of the story when it comes to the treatment of global health diseases during Covid. The other side follows the “every crisis is an opportunity” narrative and involves a stronger focus on medical innovation. For instance, after Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech‘s encouraging success, many commentators predicted an impressive future beyond the pandemic: media outlets have reported on mRNA’s potential to protect against not only the likes of the coronavirus but also a host of deadly diseases that resist traditional vaccines.

Many researchers have announced “a new era in vaccinology”, and the words “revolution”, “breakthrough” and “discovery” have been consistently used in a number of media reports. The media quickly fell into the habit of hailing mRNA as the future of healthcare and the hottest innovation of our time, and journalists in specialised and daily outlets alike often speak of reinventing the industry.

But it’s not only about mRNA. The technology deployed in the Oxford University-AstraZeneca coronavirus jab, called ChAdOx, is now used by a number of scientists in other parts of Oxford University as well as at institutions across the world to develop vaccines for diseases from rabies to Zika. 

HIV, diabetes and malaria under the radar

To see which global health diseases gained the most traction in the media, we analysed 1812 English-language articles published during the last six months in major daily outlets such as New York Times, Forbes and The Guardian, as well as specialised pharma publications like FiercePharma, Pharma Phorum Kaiser Health News.

Some of the diseases with the highest share of voice attracted attention as the novel mRNA technology managed to change the media conversation around them – having been stuck in the same pre-pandemic narratives as being virtually untreatable, now journalists reported that mRNA will give the world a chance to tackle them.

HIV emerged as the most talked-about disease, as the media focused on companies that are now working on mRNA HIV vaccine possibilities. Analysts highlighted that finding a safe and effective vaccine to protect people from HIV has eluded scientists for 40 years (not a single HIV vaccine has made it beyond Phase III clinical testing in 37 years of research). In comparison to finding a Covid vaccine in a year, such timelines might seem baffling.

One of the top-trending stories in that space was that the first participants have been vaccinated in Phase 1 clinical trial of an experimental HIV vaccine that utilises Moderna‘s mRNA technology, as the company announced last week.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: “mRNA’s Potential Beyond Covid: How Should PR Pros Communicate Medical Innovation?”

Other diseases were also discussed as examples of how vaccine science has been turbocharged by the pandemic. For example, UK scientists behind the AstraZeneca Covid jab have given the first trial volunteers a new plague vaccine. Journalists remarked that for many people in the world plague is a history lesson – the most infamous plague pandemic, the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 1300s, killed as much as half of the population. But there are still cases in some rural areas of Africa, Asia and America. Similarly, the first human trials of an Ebola vaccine using the same technology as the AstraZeneca Covid jab began in November.

However, the debate around other diseases was less optimistic – for instance, many publications reported that more than 100,000 Americans died from diabetes in 2021, marking the second consecutive year for that grim milestone and spurring a call for a federal mobilisation similar to the fight against HIV.

Some diseases were discussed as being sidelined during the pandemic. For example, global media reported that healthcare disruptions linked to the coronavirus pandemic helped malaria kill 69,000 more people in 2020 than the previous year. In its annual malaria report, the WHO said that in total over 627,000 people globally – most of them babies in the poorest parts of Africa – were killed by malaria last year compared with 558,000 in 2019.

In a similar manner, global deaths from tuberculosis increased for the first time in over a decade in 2020 as Covid-19 interrupted care and as limited funds and resources were diverted to fight the pandemic.

Innovation = media influence

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around global health.

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.

GlaxoSmithKline emerged as the most influential company in the debate, as it scored WHO backing for “the first-ever malaria vaccine”. The approval for the vaccine comes after ongoing research in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, which tracked over 800,000 children since 2019.

Some outlets noted that GlaxoSmithKline has spent more than 30 years developing and testing its world-first malaria vaccine, but even after a positive recommendation from European regulators in 2015, the shot still isn’t widely deployed – but that’s set to change with the World Health Organisation’s blessing.

The WHO recommendation marks the second win for the vaccine program in recent months. Back in August, researchers reported that after three years, the combination of the vaccine and seasonal antimalarial drugs lowered the number of clinical episodes of malaria, hospital admissions from malaria and deaths from malaria by about 70% compared with the seasonal drugs alone.

Another prominent company in the malaria debate was BioNTech, which announced plans to develop the world’s first mRNA-based malaria vaccine, in a potentially major step towards beating back the disease which still kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Novartis was also influential in the malaria coverage, as it was reported that its novel drug raised hope of tackling malaria drug resistance. Working with the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), Novartis developed a novel agent called ganaplacide (KAF156) that offers an entirely new mechanism of action. Some journalists added that Novartis made a big contribution to the fight against malaria more than two decades ago when it won approval for Coartem, the first artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), which has transformed care for people with the parasitic infection.

Gilead was the second most influential company overall as it aimed to cement its long-acting HIV ambitions. While the company sought approval for its long-acting HIV project lenacapavir in heavily treatment-experienced patients, commentators noted that the big prize would be treatment-naïve patients, a much larger market. Gilead plans to trial lena with equally long-acting projects, and to this end recently agreed to develop its asset alongside Merck’s HIV drug islatravir. The company also hopes to challenge GlaxosmithKline, which currently has a once-monthly treatment called Cabenuva.

Gilead also made headlines when it shared that a network of distributors and drug suppliers allegedly sold more than $250 million in illicit and fake versions of its HIV medicines over the last two years. An investigation uncovered 85,247 counterfeit bottles of Gilead‘s medications that were sold to pharmacies and distributed to patients.

Merck also gained influence due to its HIV work – researchers studying its cancer drug Keytruda for HIV patients who also have cancer say the immunotherapy may help displace the virus from human immune cells, offering an intriguing area of study for the treatment of chronic HIV infection.

However, some companies were mentioned for having failed in their HIV efforts – for example, Johnson & Johnson said its experimental vaccine failed to provide sufficient protection against HIV in sub-Saharan Africa to young women who accounted for a large number of infections last year.

In the diabetes field, Eli Lilly and partner Boehringer Ingelheim said the Food and Drug Administration has approved their diabetes drug Jardiance to treat patients with a specific type of heart failure. Vertex unveiled positive data for stem cell-derived therapy for type 1 diabetes, while Novo Nordisk collaborated with MIT and Harvard to delve into the genetics and gene regulation of Type 2 diabetes and obesity (already two major research and product areas for NovoNordisk).

Global spokespeople

Naturally, the most widely cited spokespeople were from the World Health Organisation, the predominant agency associated with global health.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s chief, was the most influential spokesperson, as he was quoted in almost all the big media stories around global health. For example, he commented on GSK‘s malaria vaccine, saying that this long-awaited vaccine is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control: “Using this vaccine in addition to existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”

The approval of the vaccine provides a “glimmer of hope” for Africa, according to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa. And Kate O’Brien, Director of WHO’s Department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals, said that as we’ve seen from the COVID vaccine, where there is political will, there is funding available to ensure that vaccines are scaled to the level they are needed.

A number of stories about GSK’s malaria vaccine also featured comments by GSK’s Chief Global Health Officer Thomas Breuer, who said the vaccine, which began development in 1987, can “reinvigorate the fight against malaria in the region at a time when progress on malaria control has stalled.”

Another prominent global health figure, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was cited in reports on Johnson & Johnson’s experimental vaccine, which failed to provide sufficient protection against HIV to young women in sub-Saharan Africa. He said that although this is certainly not the study outcome for which he had hoped, we must apply the knowledge learned from the trial.

Many media stories about Johnson & Johnson’s trial included comments by Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, who explained that HIV is a unique and complex virus that has long posed unprecedented challenges for vaccine development because of its ability to attack, hijack and evade the human immune system. “While we are disappointed that the vaccine candidate did not provide a sufficient level of protection against HIV infection in the Imbokodo trial, the study will give us important scientific findings in the ongoing pursuit for a vaccine to prevent HIV,” he added.

Other corporate representatives also owed their influence to the HIV discussion – for instance, Kimberly Smith, head of research and development at GSK’s HIV arm ViiV Healthcare, said that the company’s ultimate goal is always a cure for HIV. She hoped that ViiV would produce a cure “by 2030 if not sooner”.

Meanwhile, Joan Butterton, M.D., Merck’s vice president of global clinical development for infectious diseases, said the pharma will continue to study doravirine and islatravir “in diverse populations of people living with HIV.” And Merdad Parsey, Chief Medical Officer at Gilead, commented on the expansion of the company’s medication Biktarvy to include younger children living with HIV-1 infection: “Children living with HIV are in need of effective and accessible formulations of antiretroviral therapy.”

How can pharma cut through the Covid noise and promote its work on other global threats?

Although Covid has ruled over headlines for quite some time now, pharma companies have a chance to penetrate the coverage by focusing on other major diseases. Based on our analysis, here are a few ways this could be executed:

  • Take the chance to bring variety to the Covid-dominated media coverage. It has been a struggle to get any traction in the media with healthcare stories unrelated to Covid. But while the pandemic was one of the narratives that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020, some metrics suggest that 2021 represented the inevitable hangover: engagement with news content plummeted last year compared to 2020 due to the decline in interest in news about the virus. For example, data shows that the Omicron variant is not jumpstarting Americans’ engagement in Covid news like it did at the onset of the pandemic. This means that there are more opportunities will open up for non-Covid-related stories in the media. This will provide a crucial opportunity for organisations to communicate effectively about solutions to address these other emerging health crises.
  • Capitalise on the public’s appetite for health and innovation stories. The public is more knowledgeable now about medicine trials and the regulation process than ever before. Even pharma brands that have not been directly involved in the development of Covid vaccines have had to demonstrate leadership at this time. Covid has increased the relevance of health and innovation in our daily lives and, as a result, the public’s appetite for this information. The emphasis on innovation and the success of the vaccines could finally help the industry to deal with the criticism that it is too slow to bring novel medicines to market. Based on our recent analysis of 670 public companies in the healthcare sector, the share of voice of the innovation-related stories more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019.
  • Utilise the crisis to shape the narrative around medical innovation. There’s an opportunity for healthcare 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. Biotechs in particular 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, such as volatility and clinical failures. 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.
  • Use the “science can save the world” narrative for other diseases. What’s been done for Covid could be done for other diseases, especially with the power of vaccines. The fight against the virus, alongside the vaccine development process, has put science in a more prominent position in public perceptions. The critical role science plays in responding to a crisis is being elevated to such an extent that even the notoriously “bad” pharma companies experience reputational boosts as the coronavirus pandemic highlights their scientific expertise in developing medications and vaccines. As issues such as climate change have been increasingly politicised, and evidence-based decision-making has been discredited by certain officials, this is a chance for communicators to capitalise on this growing interest in science to move environmental causes away from political framing and into the scientific discourse.

Learn more about how Commetric’s Media Analytics can supercharge your communications strategy with the essential insights necessary to boost your reputation.