Bayer, Biogen, Sunovion, Astrazeneca and Other Execs on the Changes Driven by COVID-19

Recently, eyeforpharma held its spring Philadelphia event virtually. It was a comprehensive view of how the industry is addressing the pandemic, and we are running portions of it here as our roundtable article. The presenters offered hope, inspiration and a vision of the future that makes us proud of the people we associate with.

Innovation, communication and adaptation to change were the central topics that came up again and again. On the following pages, we have summarized the wisdom of some of the participants. We trust that there are moments you can use for your own corporate agendas. Our appreciation to eyeforpharma for permission to use the material.



President, Americas Region Bayer



EVP & Head Sanofi



Chairman Eisai



Head, US Commercial Learning Biogen



SVP, Sales and Market Access Sunovion Pharmaceuticals



SVP Marketing Bayer



Associate Director of Global Commercial Operations, Business Analytics AbbVie



Director, Commercial Strategy & Operations, Oncology Novartis



VP Commercial Operation Takeda



Head, Commercial Learning Innovation Centre AstraZeneca



President & CEO North America Otsuka

What were some of the early actions you took during the Covid-19 crisis?

SEBASTION GUTH: Bayer took a number of early actions around COVID-19 crisis to protect everyone while maintaining business continuity. There were four main efforts:

  • First, they insured continuity of supply of product, because of the enormous number of patients who rely on their medications. “The team has done remarkably well in support of patients,” says Guth
  • Second: protecting customers and employees. They moved everything to working from home in the early days, not to expose customers to unnecessary face-to-face interaction. They instituted an initiative to support the full range of health indicators, including physical and mental health, and hosted a conference with a physician around challenges of isolation, on how to stay fit and engaged.
  • Third: Bayer became customer-obsessed, reaching out to all external partners, asking “What do you need from us?” They got many great ideas in an overwhelming response from customers, and acted on them quickly.
  • Fourth: the company supported the government fight against Covid-19, engaging with key agencies across the U.S., and made a large product donation of consumer health products.

Guth says “I’m convinced that we will come to believe we can continue to be engaged even in tough circumstances with the great tools we have.”

He reports that, as a leader, what impacted him most was a reinvigorated singular focus on their purpose. Day to day details divert us often from this focus, he says. “But it now unleashes an energy in all of us, to be able to help so many people across the country. It has been an incredibly powerful experience.” The Bayer people have done an incredible job of keeping the supply chain strong, serving patients across the U.S. flawlessly. Overall, he believes, “We will be a stronger industry in a stronger country.”

What model do you use to promote continuous innovation?

IVAN CHEUNG: Eisai sees itself as a human health care (hhc) company. This means we give our first thought to patients and their families, and to increasing the benefits health care provides. It even codified this concept in its Articles of Incorporation. Every one of our employees spends at least two to three working days a year to engage with patients for human health care activities.

A lady working on laptop

We believe our revenues are generated as a result of this mission.

We achieve this through a process called the SECI Model Path to Knowledge Creation. S is Socialization, learning patient realities, interacting with them to see what they need. E is Externalization, identifying patient anxieties so we have insight into delivering on the value. C is Combination, creating the strategy by sharing ideas, validating with research and preparing to implement. Finally, I is internalization, implementing the strategy and observing the new reality. But it is a continual process, so after we observe that reality, we go back to Socialization and determine whether new learnings need to be applied.

How is Sanofi reinventing itself to adapt to the new atmosphere?

DAVID LOEW: Companies need to reinvent themselves, and the Covid-19 pressure is only part of that impetus. There are also price pressures, digital transformation, the need to contain clinical development costs, and a political push in some countries to create a comprehensive data hub.

Sanofi is learning a lot from two studies, one by Kaiser Permanente, and one a Nordic study, both examining electronic medical records (EMR). The Kaiser Permanente project is a RWE longitudinal study of 1.6 million adults analyzing the effectiveness of two influenza vaccines. The Nordic study in Finland was also about flu vaccines, and also studied 1.6 million adults. The Kaiser study looked at subgroups with cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes and obesity. The Nordic study analyzed QoL status and evaluated multiple outcomes.

How does this help Sanofi reinvent itself? It showed how important interoperability and data harmonization are. Healthcare systems must migrate to EMR to ensure quality of data. This will allow, for instance, rapid comparison of two treatments to determine efficacy. Collaboration between the industry, government and other agencies will provide larger data sets, better use of AI, lower costs through reduction of redundancy, and a higher number of patient experiences to learn from.

Loew says “I think we are on the way to something great. I am very optimistic.”

You can see more from this panel in the full eyeforpharma videohere.

Other executives on the panel are: Tom Rhoads, CEO, Spencer Health Solutions, and Danielle Salowski, Industry Manager, Health, Facebook

What will the commercial field force of the future look like?

MATT PORTCH believes the new normal is going to be very different from the old. Now they’re doing virtual detailing, virtual peer-to-peer meetings, but going beyond that as well. Reps are using all the digital tools at their disposal to communicate with physicians, and he believes that customers will come to embrace digital connectivity.

How will we make the rep of the future a hybrid rep?

JENN MUSZIK addressed the topic of how we make the rep of the future a hybrid rep. She said we have to know first what customers want with respect to face-to-face interactions and being more effective in the virtual world. Will they want us to have flu shots, will there need to be Covid-19 tests before we meet? This will involve orchestrating the whole marketing mix. Although the digital tools will become more important, there are things that are better done live, so we have to consider how we protect those situations.

What will virtual engagement be like?

MATT PORTCH: Clients are open to virtual engagement, but that it can’t be a replication of your office presentation. There are opportunities, for instance, to do a virtual lunch and learn. Office staffs appreciate the respite in their day, and have had good reactions to these. “It’s our responsibility to make it more valuable for them,” he said.

Biogen is in a space where many patients need infusion, so Jenn says they’re changing from more of a sales engagement to a patient continuity conversation. She believes the physicians’ offices will become different, and so their reps will have to understand how to advise and assist them in that process.

How can we maintain the mental and emotional health of employees in the current situation?

JENN MUSZIK said that there are initiatives in that area as well, such as additional holiday times or virtual happy hours. “It can be lonely working from home,” she said, so the company has to attend to that aspect of the new environment by keeping up connection.

Matt added that since 95% of their calls now include some discussion of Covid-19, they have to both help their reps answer those questions and reassure their customers that everything is being handled as competently as possible.

What’s the next level of telehealth?

MATT PORTCH said that Sunovion held a virtual telehealth ad board and learned that tele-health significantly improves doctor-patient connection, bringing the no-show rate from 20% down to 2%. The company is helping to provide sample vouchers, screeners and patient education tools virtually. Jenn said that they will be utilizing EHRs to provide anything patients need by putting it right in their care pack. Matt said that adding video to telehealth communications significantly raised the engagement levels because it replicates the face-to-face interaction.

See the full interview with Matt Portch and Jenn Muszik here

What’s the long-term perspective on managing this kind of crisis?

IAN TALMAGE: Over a long career in healthcare, Ian has faced a number of crises, and was generous in providing his point of view on them. He himself is a survivor of two bouts with cancer, and said that his experiences as a patient made it all the more poignant and personal how much we depend on the skills and knowledge of our doctors. Coming out the other side of his treatments, he says he understood more clearly how important innovation is in the profession.

He is encouraged by the current move toward cooperation that is on the rise. “It’s no longer about the advantage that can be achieved by one company or one institution over another, but how we can come together as a community to help get through these difficult times.”

He noted that until recently we may have regarded social media as somewhat anti-social, we now understand and use it as a wonderful means of establishing contact.

Paul Simms of eyeforpharma asked Ian about the front-facing people in the profession – sales reps, MSLs – and how we might be more keenly aware and supportive of their role today. “It’s about looking at their priorities,” said Ian. This involves helping the front line personnel also to “understand the priorities our customers have.”


Ian posed his own question: “How do we move from managing the situation to leading the organization?” And he answered it. “We must know what healthcare professionals want, how do they want to receive information, and when. And we have to do it better than we’ve ever done it before. Align with healthcare professional need, and accelerate that into a new world, converting talk into action.”

His experience as Head of Global Strategic Marketing at Astra was one lesson in dealing with crises. In responding to a study that criticized their leading brand, they moved from managing the brand to focusing the organization on what they needed to do, how they needed to do it, and how to reassure people that what they were doing was in the best interests of patients and the healthcare system.

See the full interview with Ian Talmage here

How has Covid-19 affected commercial operations? How can we continue this change in mindset about commercial operations – the need for rapid, real-time answers in response to crises – beyond the immediate situation?

KISHAN KUMAR: This has enabled people’s ability to have a digital meeting. We could be more enabled on digital assets. The digital transformation we have been talking about is what’s currently happening. Is it permanent? No one knows. How can we keep our employees, our field force, our customers and patients engaged? There are so many aspects to the supply chain, but the best we can do is learn from what’s happened and prepare for what’s to come.

The challenges are how are we keeping customers engaged, maintaining business continuity, and how are we taking care of our own well-being? The more we emphasize these in commercial operations, the more that pattern is going to become a habit. We will change from people-dependent to process-dependent.

RJ LASEK: This will have a lasting impact on the healthcare delivery system and the way we do our business. It’s both accelerating changes that were underway and creating new things. Telehealth is here to stay. Remote virtual engagement of teams is here to stay. The way we act and how to come out of it can improve the reputation of our industry externally. There is opportunity in the chaos and part of it depends on our principles and how we act. Our field people will have to act and think and work differently in the future.

We will think about how we can train people to be virtual coaches. How we can teach virtual selling and support. How to use data better. The pandemic will accelerate that.

If all of us want commercial operations to be a strategic partner and not a transactional-based organization, then we have to ask what’s the base we’re building, what kind of people are we bringing into our organization, and what can they go to a business partner to offer? Every business has to figure out what are our differentiating capabilities – and what will they be a year from now? You have to guess how the market is going to change and how can we get in front of it?

MUNDO VEGA: Change is here to stay. The world has seen the impact that data has brought to providing solutions. A month ago they didn’t know much, how development of ventilators, anti-body testing, things we would not have been able to achieve without today’s technology. If you compare Covid-19 to the crisis if AIDS in the 80s, the timelines [for R&D and market access] were measured in months and years. Now they’re measured in weeks, and every week we know more. Even when data is partial, it’s better than having nothing.

SPENCER HOLT: Of course the big sweeping changes will last, but this is also a moment for individual leadership – how will you lead your teams, how much of these new habits will you keep and how much will there be a return to normal that you allow to creep back in? That’s a paradox of the human spirit. I think the most progressive and agile organizations will not let go of this, but speed it up. It’s both an advantage and, altruistically, a greater ability to help the patient. If this were a case study, it would be fascinating to watch.

And the panel commented on other aspects of leadership that will propel us forward: having your medical partners more engaged, getting better at examining data analytics, having cross-matrix links so sales and marketing see the whole picture, and more. Mundo summarized it by saying that forcing ourselves to be in the same room with the same information and views will help advance the industry the most.

See the full panel video with Kishan Kumar, Rj Lasek, Mundo Vega and Spencer Holt here.

What will leadership look like on the other side of the pandemic?

KABIR NATH: A positive that can come out of this pandemic is collaboration. People are coming together to find solutions and collaborating on treatments, vaccines, and repurposing old drugs. The biotech sector is working with foundations and third parties. Collaborations during this pandemic may help us realize ways to bypass a lot of bureaucracy that slows down progress on working and move more quickly to get things done. Not by taking shortcuts but focused on how much risk we are willing to take to move treatment forward quickly. This could change dialogue about risk moving forward.

We’re already starting to see in the US a perspective of how to bring drugs to market more quickly, especially now that we can do more from a real world evidence point of view. There are questions about other ways to look at the regulatory paradigm and privacy. Technology can enable things to happen in a healthcare setting more quickly, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of privacy protections.

Considering the long-term mental health crisis, we have to start with our community to make sure our employees and their families have access to the care they need to deal with their anxiety. More generally, this will help with the stigma around talking about anxiety and mental health. This stigma has unfortunately become more widespread.

It may be premature to start thinking about how it changes the mental health landscape except in one way. In the US, telemedicine, and other virtual interaction is very important. This could be a catalyst for digital innovations to help treat mental health.

This is helping to develop a stronger case for increasing the investment in digital mental healthcare. I don’t mean investing in more of the hundreds of apps, but increasing investment in companies focused on evidence-based ways to ameliorate serious mental illness.

As a pharmaceutical industry, we’re good at developing a product and working out what we do with it, but not good at understanding what solutions are needed and creating or co-creating those solutions. The challenge will be moving from the current crisis around creating new vaccines and antivirals that are directly related to the crisis at hand to changing the industry and how it thinks about solutions. The problem is not just the industry, but also how regulators and hospitals and healthcare systems look at things. There are so many for-profit pools involved that it becomes very difficult to effect change.

Moving Forward


At Otsuka, our main priority has been making sure employees are settling in to working from home. Then how do we maintain interaction with our customers? How do we make sure that patients still have access to medicines and mental health care? I’ve put a team of thinkers together to consider what this means for when we emerge into the new normal. It has to be a different business model for how we develop and commercialize drugs.

See the full interview with Kabir Nath here.


These leaders and others are grappling with the moment and the future simultaneously. The Covid-19 crisis has forced a much-needed conversation about how we can streamline all aspects of the industry, from R&D through clinical trials to regulatory approval, marketing strategy, restructuring sales forces and getting product to patients in record time.

That’s a great deal to handle, but that’s why there is a silver lining to this crisis. With all of those things absolutely necessary in dealing with Covid-19, the lessons learned will expand across all that the industry does, and result in a more efficient, more effective, and even more human approach to healthcare. We salute all those who are contributing to this new age.

cartoon people sitting around round table

May / June 2020

Gilead Sciences Secures Exclusive Option to Acquire Tizona Therapeutics for $300 Million