Every day, more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine in one of the largest public health endeavors in history. In one month, America went from vaccinating 300,000 per day to vaccinating 1.45 million per day — and that figure continues to climb.
The pandemic changed how our world functions. The vaccines, and their rollout, will bring even more changes to the field of medical affairs. It’s time for MA teams to prepare for that future.
Fast-Track Approval Is the New Normal
The approval fast track has become a popular way to get medications and other treatments approved.
“Just in the United States, we are seeing a record number of new drug approvals,” says Charlotte Kremer, EVP head of medical affairs for Astellas Pharma. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 59 new drugs in 2018, 80% of which took advantage of an expedited pathway, such as Priority Review or Fast Track.”
This isn’t to say that every new therapy will launch with the same speed as the COVID-19 vaccines. The Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) given to the vaccines is not the same thing as the FDA’s fast track for approval.
“It's very important that everybody knows that EUA is not necessarily cutting corners or short-cutting FDA's review,” Shannon Curtis, assistant director of federal affairs for the American Medical Association, says of the Pfizer vaccine. “Really, we just cut out a little bit of the bureaucracy, some of the paperwork, and the time that it takes to do that instead of cutting any corners on the safety and efficacy or short-cutting the process.”
In the short-term, medical affairs teams will need to work to assure people that the vaccines are safe. People need to have faith that the medicine they are prescribed is safe and the best option — and this starts with the COVID-19 vaccines.
The Vaccine Won’t Immediately Bring Back Conferences
Even as healthcare professionals and medical affairs experts receive their vaccines, they won’t be able to return to live events immediately.
The good news: Virtual events also allow MA professionals to scale their reach. Tosan Arueyingho, founder and president of Black is Tech, shares how his conference drew 6,000 attendees in 2020, compared to 1,000 the year before. The lower costs of travel and time away from the office drew more interest in what his event’s speakers had to say.
According to the weekly Planner Confidence Index surveys, shared by i-Meet, the majority of conference planners expect face-to-face events to return in late 2021. While planner confidence changes with vaccine distribution rates, most people are confident that in-person events will resume by the end of this year.
The Vaccine and the Value of Real-Time Information Exchange
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how one virus, disease or condition can affect the whole body. Rapid information sharing and real-time scientific exchange can empower healthcare workers to better understand the symptoms and reactions of patients to provide clearer diagnoses and more strategic treatment plans.
“With the COVID-19 epidemic, [healthcare providers] who have been often focused only on their areas of specialty and interest are likely to start showing interest in getting updates on information beyond a particular class of medications and therapy areas,” says Viraj Rajadhyaksha, area medical director at AstraZeneca.
COVID-19 may be primarily a respiratory disease, but it has impacted patients’ hearts, nerve cells and countless other parts of the body. This disease has reminded professionals across healthcare how their specializations overlap, and how important information sharing is.
“Not every drug is appropriate for every patient,” Erin Albert at Apex Benefits says. “Thus, it’s absolutely critical for clinicians to have several data sources in the field to talk to, inform themselves, and collaborate.”
Medical affairs has always been about the exchange of information. As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, MA teams have the power to build upon these collaborations with HCPs to form stronger communication channels.
“Medical Affairs has always been a vital conduit of information both inwards and outwards,” writes David Youds, founder and CEO of Bedrock Group. “Partnerships between Medical Affairs and external stakeholders are invaluable and provide insights that can steer future medical strategy.”
Medical Affairs Leaders Need to Redefine Job Success
As MA professionals look to the future, they may need to redefine their work and what constitutes a good job at the end of the day.
“Most of the pharmaceutical companies evaluated MSL activity by using different qualitative and quantitative key performance indicators (KPIs),” says Clara Serrano Novillo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Barcelona.
“Many [key opinion leaders (KOLs)] are inundated with work and reject any kind of interaction, including virtual. This experience has led the companies to readjust the metrics used to evaluate their MSLs, and the MSLs have been forced to promote new approaches to achieve successful performances.”
MA teams can re-evaluate how they spend their time and what interactions are most valuable. The number of touchpoints with an organization might not be as valued as the quality of touchpoints or the ratio of in-person to virtual conversations.
“The impact of COVID-19 has disrupted industries and professions worldwide,” writes Allen Amedume, an extern at Bristol Myers Squibb. “Fortunately for MSLs, they have begun adapting to the transformations in their daily operations by rapidly identifying, prioritizing, and implementing innovative strategies.”
The work of medical science liaisons will always reflect the demands of healthcare professionals and their patients. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams can begin to look ahead to understand what changes worked and what communication strategies need to be adjusted for the future normal.