On 16 March 2020, we sent an email saying “The Prime Minister has just held a press conference where he advised people to avoid non-essential contact with others – and to work from home where possible. It seems therefore, that we should close the office from tomorrow. I’m assuming this might last several weeks or more, so remember to take all your gear home with you!”
That ‘several weeks’ has grown into two years. But, among the lockdowns, NHS crises, human tragedies, anti-vax protests and PPE frauds, we’ve actually seen some positive effects in our industry. Here’s a look at a few of the good things to come out of the painful experience of COVID for pharma and med comms:
A novel vaccine developed in record time
The most amazing story – given our insider knowledge about how clinical development works – is that several pharma companies were able to develop an entirely new type of mRNA vaccine, then organize and run large clinical trials, demonstrate substantial efficacy, create the manufacturing capacity to deliver billions of doses, and negotiate authorization for rollout, in less than a year.
The pandemic has also shone a light on the clinical trial and publication processes more generally, both good and bad (e.g. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(20)30542-8/fulltext). And this may lead to improvements for both in future.
An improvement in opinions about big pharma
For years, pharma has had an image problem, powered by some high-profile cases of wrongdoing, that has obscured their massive contribution to global health. In 2019, only J&J made the Forbes 100 Most Admired Companies list. But in the 2022 list, there are five pharma companies in the top 100, including Pfizer at 4, sandwiched between Microsoft and Disney. The vaccine, and a wider understanding of what pharma companies do, has provided the opportunity for a reputational reset that we can build on.
An improvement in the science literacy of the population
Our friends and relatives have all spent the last two years talking antibodies and antigens, PCR and mRNA, and looking at graphs of R-values and vaccine rollouts – science! And some quite complex bits of science at that. It seems that this might have rubbed off and improved interest in, and understanding of, science in the general population (e.g. https://www.wired.com/story/surprise-the-pandemic-has-made-people-more-science-literate/) – which can only be a good thing. And it might lead to more children pursuing careers in science and medicine, which will benefit our industry long term.
A switch to more flexible working
As we’ve written about before, the pandemic has demonstrated to everyone that flexible working can work, and work well. We’ve certainly experienced many positives from our enforced period of working from home, and we adapted our Working and Wellness policy to give everyone the freedom to explore flexibility for themselves. Now offices are opening again, we have an exciting period in front of us as we watch this model of working evolve to a ‘new normal’ (e.g. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/flexible-remote-working-post-covid19-company-predictions/)
A focus on work–life balance
COVID has caused everyone to reassess their priorities, to the point where we are in the middle of ‘the great resignation’ (e.g. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-great-resignation-william-meller/). The reasons are varied, but many people are looking for new challenges and new careers. We’re certainly seeing an increase in our turnover rate compared with mid-pandemic, and for some, this has been for a life or career change (e.g. move to New Zealand, work for a charity). But we’re also seeing success in recruitment driven by people attracted by our approach to flexible working, focus on career development, and commitment to issues like work-life balance, equity and climate change.
Governments taking action in a crisis
We’ve seen governments around the world act quickly, decisively, at great cost; pass laws that curtail ‘freedoms’ and enforce lockdowns and limits on social interactions. And, for the most part, people understood the need for these actions and were willing – happy even – to follow them. So, given the recent IPCC report on climate change (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/28/what-is-the-ipcc-climate-change-report-and-what-will-it-say), might the COVID experience give governments confidence that voters will accept the drastic changes needed to avert the worst? Time will tell.
So, to sum up. Although COVID has had (and is still having) a major impact on life and health worldwide, there are also a few positives for the medical communication and healthcare industries that provide some hope for a more positive future.