They say there are decades in which nothing happens, and months in which decades happen. From my perspective in the generic medicines industry, I’m not sure I agree with the first part; the last decade has already seen enough change to last most industries a lifetime!
But I’d certainly endorse the second bit: the last few months have fundamentally changed so many aspects of our lives, in ways that seemed previously unimaginable. (I had to laugh recently when a friend sent me a mock announcement from a bookstore, explaining to bewildered customers that “the Post-Apocalyptic Fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs”).
That’s the thing with global public health crises: from the plague in Ancient Greece, which led to profound social changes, to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, which transformed the balance of power in Europe, they impact societies as a whole massively, in so many ways.
With more than half the world’s population in “lock-down” mode at the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is easy to see just how great an impact the coronavirus has had on a broadly interconnected world. I have also used the lock-down time to think ahead a bit, trying to anticipate the lasting social, political and business consequences, and the role the healthcare industry can play in the post-pandemic world.
So what is likely to change, and what will it mean for the healthcare sector in particular? Once we move past the short-term challenges, I believe the longer-term outcomes could include:
Accelerated digitalization: Large chunks of the healthcare sector have had a “crash course” in digital alternatives, ranging from working at home to virtual marketing. An article in Forbes last year argued that “the future of work is distributed”, with 70% of employees saying “going into the office isn’t necessary”. Covid-19 has forced many companies worldwide to put that to the test. I’m as curious as anyone to see what lessons we all draw for the long term. Meanwhile, a recent study argued that only 10% of physicians engage well with digital marketing tools. After a few months without sales rep visits, I’ll be equally curious to see if that remains the case.
Rethinking supply chains: I wrote earlier this year about the growing focus on pharmaceutical supply chains, and the calls for more “domestic production” have grown even more vocal in the meantime. As with other industries, pharma companies will seek ways to make supply chains more resilient and agile, without adding cost. We can also expect governments and regulators to tighten regulations to prevent shortages, leading to changes in sourcing strategy industry-wide.
Increased focus on public health: We can expect greater general awareness of infectious diseases, the fact that they respect no boundaries, and the critical need for anti-infectives and vaccines. Covid-19 may also make people more aware of the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR); according to a UK government report, at least 700,000 die each year of drug resistance in illnesses such as bacterial infections, malaria, HIV / AIDS or tuberculosis. And there is anecdotal evidence that patients dying due to secondary bacterial infections or other related complications that overwhelm the system may be a factor in the high Covid-19 fatality rate in Italy, which has the highest AMR levels in the EU. WHO Secretary General Dr. Tedros also warned just this week that responsible use of antibiotics during Covid-19 is of paramount importance.
Greater focus on healthcare: More generally, the crisis has highlighted the extent to which many countries have cut healthcare budgets. And that’s not to mention the extent to which a major pandemic can simply overwhelm individual hospitals, cities and even countries. The need for systematic investment, collaboration and “big picture” planning, to deploy resources where they are most needed, is unlikely to disappear from the political agenda any time soon. (We’ve already seen a promising start, with unprecedented steps taken by the European institutions to support cross-industry supply chain collaboration without infringing competition law – and with strong leadership from our trade association, Medicines for Europe). This collective approach highlights the vital role played by the generics industry, which provides two-thirds of prescription medicines in Europe at a fraction of the total cost (and even more in the US).
Could all this be just wishful thinking? Is it possible that governments and other stakeholders will simply forget everything they have learned once the immediate crisis has passed?
It’s possible, but I believe it’s extremely unlikely. Unlike, for instance, the global financial meltdown earlier this century, the causes of this crisis are easy to understand, the impact on hundreds of millions of people worldwide is immediate – and the risk of it happening again in the near future is anything but theoretical.
We have a unique opportunity to act together and create the global healthcare system we all need and deserve. Let’s not miss the chance...