The Covid-19 pandemic may fade but some of the changes it has wrought in the life sciences may – or should – endure, according to two prominent pharma CEOs who spoke during a session Friday at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

For starters, the pandemic has shown how quickly companies and regulators can bring products to market, with tests, vaccines and therapies being studied and approved at record speeds, according to the CEOs, Paul Hudson of Sanofi and Tom Polen of BD.

Companies also have collaborated in ways they would not have contemplated previously. Hudson cited Sanofi’s work with GSK to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. The partnership might once have taken a year to come together but took only 12 days, Hudson said.

“So many times, it was a race against the virus, not a race against each other,” said Hudson, who became Paris-based Sanofi’s CEO in fall 2019 after leaving Novartis.

Regulators have moved at similar speeds, delivering answers in minutes rather than months, Hudson said.

The fast pace stems from the pressure of Covid-19, which has killed two million people around the world and is continuing to spread and mutate. But the sense of urgency could be applied in the future to tackle other diseases, like childhood cancers.

“I think the industry is at its best when it’s purpose-driven with a singular focus,” Hudson said during the JPM session, which was moderated by managing directors at Boston Consulting Group.

Large pharma companies, meanwhile, showed that they could pivot and innovate quickly, despite stereotypes to the contrary. Polen cited BD’s effort to develop a rapid-antigen test for Covid-19. It went from launch to monthly production of 10 million units within six months, said Polen. It normally would take three years.

The speed was a function of setting a clear mandate and a deadline but also doing things differently inside the company, Polen said. While the test was a life science project, for example, BD plucked talent from across the organization to lead the charge.

Another key was empowering and supporting employees so that they were not afraid of taking risks. Early on, the team found a promising antibody, one that is now used in the test, Polen said. The normal progression would be to order a small batch, wait to see if it works and then start ordering batches for commercial production. BD executives assured employees they were OK with ordering the commercial batches up front despite the risk and cost.

“That ended up being a tremendous part of the success equation,” Polen said

The pandemic was not the only force reshaping the industry in 2020. Hudson and Polen discussed the lasting impact they hope to see from the racial justice protests that followed the death last year of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

“This year brought a whole new and very much-needed focus on this issue for us as BD,” said Polen, who became CEO of the Franklin Lakes, New Jersey-based company in January 2020.

The company’s leaders have worked to create an environment where employees feel comfortable broaching difficult topics around race, Polen said. “That was a big change this year.”

Harris noted the need to improve diversity among patients in clinical trials but also among the investigators.

For 2021, Harris and Polen expect a sharper competition for talent in the life sciences.

“I think it’s going to escalate after we get out of Covid,” Polen said. But some of the workplace changes wrought by the pandemic could prove useful in the competition. Employees that once might have had to move for a promotion or a new job now can stay where they are and work remotely, an option that could help dual-income families.

Polen and Harris also discussed the growing role in health care for big tech companies like Amazon, Apple and Google. The CEOs painted the tech giants as potential partners rather than rivals. Not only can tech companies help bring products to patients, they also tools to transform pharma’s internal operations.

The challenge ahead lies in preserving the energy, purpose and speed that animated the industry in 2020, Hudson added. “People can quickly fall back into the old routines.”

Photo: Dmitrii_Guzhanin, Getty Images

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