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by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

IRA: Are Patients Winning at the Cost of the US Pharma Sectoral Growth?

The market reaction to the US Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is mostly mixed. It is expected to change the pharma industry dynamics in terms of the competitive positioning and product pricing of those companies projected to be negatively impacted by the IRA. The answer to whether the IRA will be able to curb rising healthcare costs in the USA lies in the legislation’s on-the-ground application.

IRA to decrease prescription drug prices via a four-pronged strategy

Prices of prescription drugs in the USA are 2.78 times higher than in 33 other countries analyzed in a 2024 report published by RAND, a public policy think tank.

In pursuit of reducing healthcare costs in the USA, the Biden government passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August 2022. One of the major goals of the act includes the reduction of prices of prescription drugs.

This is expected to be achieved through a four-pronged strategy, the mainstay of which involves the US federal government negotiating the prices of some high-priced prescription drugs covered under Medicare.

The second prong includes pharmaceutical firms paying a rebate to Medicare if they raise the price of prescription medicines covered under Medicare by a rate that is higher than the inflation rate.

The monthly cost of insulin for Medicare patients is capped at US$35, as the third prong.

The fourth prong aims to reduce prescription drug prices by capping the out-of-pocket costs of Medicare Part D patients at US$4,000 in 2024 and US$2,000 in 2025.

IRA Are Patients Winning at the Cost of the US Pharma Sectoral Growth by EOS Intelligence

IRA Are Patients Winning at the Cost of the US Pharma Sectoral Growth by EOS Intelligence

Pharma companies to suffer more due to IRA compared to projected government savings

Under the IRA, large pharmaceutical companies, defined as those with over US$1 billion in net profits, are required to pay a minimum of 15% annual taxes, a financial burden on these companies. Analysts predict that the annual revenue from corporate taxes could be to the tune of US$222 billion. Furthermore, the IRA is expected to save over US$287 billion for ten years from the roll-out, as per the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Apart from the increased financial burden on some companies, experts foresee potential adverse impact on several pharmaceutical companies based in the USA to a considerable extent.

The pharma companies witnessing the least to no impact are the ones with their primary operations based outside the USA, biologics or large molecule drug producers, and the ones that do not receive government funding for R&D. This is because of the differing timelines under IRA for negotiating the prices of biologics and small molecules. Biologics’ timeline is 11 years after FDA approval, while small molecule drugs are eligible after 7 years. Therefore, Medicare negotiations will begin four years earlier for a small molecule drug that has received approval at the same time as a large molecule biologic drug.

Apart from these adverse effects, such as differential treatment of small molecule drugs compared to biologics under Medicare price negotiation timelines, there are some other negative impacts on the overall US pharma industry, such as diminishing competition among generic drug producers, decreased discovery of new treatments, and new uses of existing drugs.

IRA to affect the revenues of top pharma companies surely but variably

There are differing viewpoints regarding the impact of IRA on pharmaceutical companies’ revenue. One group of experts suggests that Medicare prescription drug negotiations under the IRA will depend on the expiration of the drug’s patent. Other experts expressed their opinion that irrespective of when a drug loses exclusivity, a significant threat to drug revenues comes from the competition entering the market and not from lower negotiated drug prices.

The first group of experts states that lower negotiated prices in 2026 are expected to have a lower impact on medicines projected to witness revenue loss owing to patent expiry around the same time. One such example of a drug losing its exclusivity in the USA in 2025 is Stelara by Janssen Biotech approved for treating psoriasis.

In contrast, pharma companies producing medicines that are expected to witness competition from their generic counterparts after 2026 are projected to lose revenue owing to lower negotiated prices even before the drugs lose exclusivity. However, some companies’ revenue will be affected more than others.

Medicare price negotiations to hit revenues of some drugmakers drastically

The pharma industry’s revenue is expected to decrease by 2% due to the new measures brought about by the IRA, as per a 2022 report by Morningstar, a US financial services firm. Among the companies that will be highly affected are Novo Nordisk, Gilead, Bristol Myers Squibb, AbbVie, and AstraZeneca. In contrast, others, such as Pfizer, Merck, Roche, and Novartis, will not be as much impacted by Medicare price negotiations.

Some 15% of global branded drug sales come from Medicare in the USA, as per Morningstar estimates. Therefore, the impact of the IRA on pharmaceutical companies depends on their reliance on Medicare sales, price adjustments, high-cost specialized drugs, and extended patent protection.

Medicare prescription drug negotiations are projected to impact pharma companies the most among all IRA measures, although this impact might not be uniform across the players. On the other hand, Medicare negotiations are projected to save the government approximately US$100 billion through 2031. The pharma companies facing the highest revenue losses include Novo Nordisk, Gilead, and AstraZeneca.

When the Medicare price negotiation measures start to roll out in 2026, two drugs of Novo Nordisk, namely, Ozempic and Rybelsus, that are approved to treat type 2 diabetes, are expected to witness an 8% decline in their projected revenue through 2031, as per Morningstar. Gilead’s Biktarvy, which treats HIV-1 infections, is expected to be subject to price negotiation in 2027 and thereby face a projected revenue loss of 7% through 2031. On similar lines, Calquence (to treat mantle cell lymphoma) and Tagrisso (to treat non-small cell lung cancer) drugs of AstraZeneca are expected to lose 6% revenues through 2031 owing to Medicare price negotiations.

In contrast, considering the existing portfolios, Pfizer, Merck, Bristol Myers, and BioMarin are expected to witness no revenue loss due to Medicare negotiations.

Medicare inflation caps to impact major pharma companies negatively

Another important IRA measure is Medicare inflation caps. This measure involves drug producers paying penalties for increasing drug prices beyond the inflation rate. It is expected to result in US$62 billion in government savings through 2031.

Around March 2023, the US federal government, along with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), released a list of 27 drugs whose prices were increased by their manufacturers at a higher rate than the inflation rate. This list included AbbVie’s Humira (to treat Crohn’s Disease) and Astellas Pharma’s and Seagen’s Padcev (to treat urothelial cancer). Gilead Sciences, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer are among other impacted companies by Medicare inflation caps. Pfizer had the most drugs on the list, with a total of five.

Bristol Myers Squibb is one of the pharma companies that is expected to be highly impacted by Medicare inflation caps. The company’s drugs, such as Eliquis (to treat or prevent blood clots), Opdivo (to treat melanoma), Orencia (to treat rheumatoid arthritis), and Yervoy (to treat various cancer types) are among the medicines that are expected to face revenue loss owing to inflation caps. Other drugs on the list include Novo Nordisk’s drugs such as Novolog and Levemir (both for type 1 diabetes) and Victoza (for type 2 diabetes), Johnson & Johnson’s drugs such as Imbruvica (to treat certain cancers) and Xarelto (to treat or prevent blood clots), along with Novartis’s Sandostatin (for severe diarrhea and flushing related to metastatic carcinoid tumors).

In contrast, Merck is not expected to face any revenue loss due to inflation caps, while GSK, Regeneron, Roche, and Sanofi are projected to witness minimal revenue loss as these companies have not raised the prices of their drugs beyond the inflation rate.

IRA to potentially reduce competition from generics

According to the IRA, following the price negotiations of some of the branded drugs, manufacturers of the generic versions of such drugs will have less scope to charge a reduced price for those drugs. This would disincentivize the generic drug producers to manufacture generic versions of the already low-priced branded drugs.

EOS Perspective

The IRA represents a substantial change in the US legislation that strives to make healthcare more affordable to Americans through increased access to more reasonably priced prescription medicines.

However, IRA can be expected to affect small-molecule drugmakers more negatively than biologics. Moreover, some pharmaceutical companies are projected to feel the pinch more than others in terms of revenue losses.

Companies such as Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, and the pharmaceutical association PhRMA have filed lawsuits against some provisions of the IRA, stating that they are unconstitutional. Bristol Myers Squibb and J&J are planning to appeal after the US court dismissed the IRA lawsuits. These pharmaceutical companies are trying to find ways to circumvent the negative impact of the legislation.

IRA is also expected to negatively impact R&D and medical innovation. This is evident from the fact that biopharma companies have reduced their R&D efforts in the neuroscience space, especially since a lot of development work in this space involves small-molecule drugs. Moreover, as IRA exempts only one orphan drug from price negotiation, investments in R&D for orphan drugs are likely to get deprioritized. Many pharmaceutical companies are reconsidering their R&D planning and investment strategies to counter the effect of IRA.

IRA is clearly not a win-win strategy for all stakeholders. Pharmaceutical companies are mostly at the losing end, while patients could be winners. Considering all the positives and negatives of IRA, only time will tell the actual impact of the legislation on the overall pharmaceutical industry.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

An Era of Innovation: Novel Drugs Redefining Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Paradigm

Since the approval of the first drug, interferon beta 1b (IFNβ-1b), in 1993, the treatment landscape of multiple sclerosis (MS) has significantly changed. Currently, there exist more than 20 disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) to treat MS, encompassing orals, injectables, and infusions. These drugs, however, can cause adverse side effects such as toxicity, pregnancy-related complications, and gastrointestinal symptoms, among others. Moreover, about 5-10% of the patient population still develops disability. Despite the wide range of therapeutic options available, patients experience relapses and worsening disease symptoms, which significantly reduce their quality of life.

The ongoing challenges have driven pharmaceutical companies to develop and launch drugs that offer greater efficacy and safety, enhancing patients’ health outcomes in the longer term. In particular, significant efforts are geared towards treating the progressive forms of MS, such as Primary Progressive MS (PPMS) and Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS), for which therapies are currently limited.

Several emerging therapies are in various stages of development, targeting distinct mechanisms of the underlying disease etiology. Among all the emerging therapeutic approaches, Bruton Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (BTKIs) emerge as the most promising, currently in later stages of clinical trials, poised for approval. The potential advantage of BTKI agents is that they can treat both relapsing and progressive forms of MS.

Remyelination is another equally promising therapeutic approach, as it has the potential to promote myelination, restore axonal and neuronal health, and prevent disability; however, extensive clinical trials are essential to develop these drugs and fully integrate them into clinical practice.

On the other hand, monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) are becoming the most common therapeutic option due to their higher selectivity for B-cells (a type of immune cell), a fact that plays a crucial role in MS disease pathogenesis. The higher selectivity of mAbs allows to efficiently target these cells and reduce inflammation.

An Era of Innovation Novel Drugs Redefining Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Paradigm by EOS Intelligence

An Era of Innovation Novel Drugs Redefining Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Paradigm by EOS Intelligence

Pharma companies place high hopes on BTKI

Following the success of B-cell depleting therapies in treating MS, there has been a notable surge in interest in utilizing a novel class of medications called BTKI. BTK is an enzyme crucial for the functioning of B-lymphocytes, which elucidates the autoimmune response in MS patients. Unlike B-cell depleting therapies, which directly reduce the number of B-cells, BTKIs alter B-cell function, preventing relapse or slowing disease progression in MS patients.

These BTKIs can be taken orally, offering a convenient and easy way of administration. Another potential advantage is that BTKIs can cross the complex blood-brain barrier, which other MS drugs fail to do. Due to this potent efficacy, researchers believe that BTK inhibition can even act as a cure for MS.

Over the past few years, top pharma companies such as Roche, Sanofi, InnoCare, and Novartis have betted big on BTKI to treat MS patients. There are currently four BTKI agents that are being investigated for MS treatment – Sanofi’s Tolebrutinib, Roche’s Fenebrutinib, Novartis’ Remibrutinib, and InnoCare’s Orelabrutinib. Among these, Sanofi is ahead in the race, looking to submit its BTKI drug Tolebrutinib to treat Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS) for FDA approval in 2024. The company is also currently evaluating Tolebrutinib in a phase 3 trial for treating PPMS, which is expected to be completed in August 2024. If successful, Sanofi would become the first pharmaceutical company to offer BTKIs for both RRMS and PPMS. At present, Roche’s Ocrevus (Ocrelizumab) is the only DMT approved for treating PPMS. Sanofi’s approval of BTKIs would set the stage for direct competition between Roche and Sanofi in the treatment of PPMS. However, Roche’s Ocrevus patent expires in 2029, hence the company remains focused on its BTKI drug Fenebrutinib.

Similar to Sanofi, Roche is testing Fenebrutinib for treating both RRMS and PPMS patients. Roche is slated to complete its phase 3 studies investigating the drug to treat RRMS in November 2025 and PPMS in December 2026.

Novartis and InnoCare are slightly trailing in the competition. Novartis is currently evaluating its BTKI drug, Remibrutinib, in phase 3 clinical trials to treat people with RRMS, expected to be completed in 2029. On the other hand, InnoCare is currently evaluating Orelabrutinib in phase 2 trials for RRMS treatment. Both Remibrutinib and Orelabrutinib cannot be used to treat PPMS, which is a major limitation.

The development of BTKI fosters hope for the next era of MS treatment, as the therapy treats both relapsing and progressive MS. However, the safety and efficacy of each drug still needs to be understood.

Results from BTKI clinical trials indicate that these drugs differ in the strength of BTKI inhibition, BTK enzyme binding mechanism, and central nervous system (CNS) penetration. For instance, Sanofi’s Tolebrutinib showed greater CNS penetrance than the other BTKI agents, making the drug a potential candidate for treating PPMS. On the other hand, Roche’s Fenebrutinib is the only reversible BTK inhibitor that does not cause drug resistance, thus offering a better and safer treatment compared to the rest of the BTKI agents.

It is too early to predict the timeline and extent to which these drugs will be incorporated into the MS treatment paradigm. Until then, pharmaceutical companies in this space will persist in vying to accelerate the launch of their therapies in the fiercely competitive MS market.

Therapies targeting remyelination nearing clinical trials

In MS, myelin, a fatty tissue that surrounds the nerve cells, gets damaged, impairing the nerve’s ability to send electrical signals. At present, no therapies can promote myelin repair in MS patients. The current treatments focus primarily on reducing immune system activity and stopping immune cells from entering the CNS to reduce relapse rates and improve symptoms. The emergence of remyelination therapies holds extensive promise by protecting and restoring neuronal function, and preventing clinical disability in MS patients.

Remyelination works by either removing myelin debris or by creating a type of cells called oligodendrocytes to repair and replace the damaged myelin sheaths.

Over the last few years, pharmaceutical companies have shown heightened interest in evaluating and developing drugs that could promote remyelination. Some of these drugs are in later stages of development, nearing clinical trials.

For instance, in March 2024, Convelo Therapeutics, a US-based biotechnology company, announced that its two oral therapies showed promising evidence in myelin repair in animal models. Similarly, in the same month, the FDA granted a breakthrough device designation to a neurostimulator, for treating RRMS. The device is developed by SetPoint Medical, a US-based healthcare company, to slow myelin damage in RRMS patients. Both these companies have been working to begin clinical trials soon to test their remyelinating agents.

Numerous other companies across the world are also conducting extensive research on remyelination therapies for MS. Additionally, studies are underway to explore the potential of existing drugs, such as Metformin, Ibudilast, and Clemastine, among others, in promoting myelin repair. Encouraging results from preclinical trials and ongoing research studies foster growing optimism that this approach will become viable in treating MS patients in the future.

However, work on remyelination to treat MS patients has just begun, and there is still a long way to go. Defining the optimal clinical criteria for evaluating myelin repair appears largely undefined. There is also an urgent need to develop tools to measure the remyelination achieved and assess the drug’s effectiveness. That said, recent discoveries shedding light on remyelination processes and the functions of oligodendrocyte cells inspire hope that these issues will be effectively addressed in the coming years. Companies are also developing advanced imaging techniques to quantify myelination.

Overall, remyelination emerges as the sole therapy focused on repairing the neuro damage and improving the neurodegenerative conditions in MS patients, which is not currently fulfilled by existing treatments. This underscores remyelination as an inevitable treatment approach for both RRMS and PPMS.

Monoclonal antibodies continually transforming the MS treatment landscape

In recent years, mAbs have emerged as the indispensable treatment option for managing the relapsing forms of MS. These therapeutic agents offer high efficacy in managing symptoms while providing additional advantages such as ease of dosing and lower side effects compared to traditional therapies.

Given the promising potential of this therapeutic approach, pharma companies strive to introduce novel mAbs targeting different cells, molecular pathways, or molecules. Interestingly, new mAbs are also being developed to help repair the damage or disability that has already occurred. Thus, mAbs aim not only to alleviate symptoms but also repair the damage caused by MS, potentially reversing disability – a critical unmet need in the MS treatment landscape.

Among all the mAbs approved, antibodies that target the CD20 molecule (a protein found on the surface of B-cells) have gained significant interest lately. In recent years, the FDA has approved various therapies targeting anti-CD20 molecule. Currently, anti-CD20 mAbs such as Ocrelizumab, Natalizumab, Ofatumumab, Ublituximab, and Rituximab are used for the treatment of MS. Ocrelizumab, developed by Roche, stands out as the only mAb approved for treating both RRMS and PPMS. Ublituximab, developed by TG Therapeutics, is the latest addition to this group, approved by the FDA in 2022.

The mAb market is highly competitive. Hence, companies have been increasingly seeking to differentiate their products based on parameters such as efficacy, safety, and dosing convenience to capture larger market shares. For instance, Novartis considers the ease of administration to be the primary differentiating factor to help drive its mAb sales. The company launched Ofatumumab in 2020, the only mAb that can be administered via injection for treating RRMS. Similarly, Roche is developing Ocrevus subcutaneous injection version similar to the IV infusion. Phase 3 trials are currently underway to evaluate the drug to treat both RRMS and PPMS.

Companies have also been looking to differentiate their drugs in terms of safety. The common side effect of MS therapies is lymphopenia, i.e., lymphocyte depletion, which can pose risks, such as increased vulnerability to infections. To address this, Sanofi is developing a CD40-based mAb named Frexalimab to treat RRMS and SPMS. CD40L is a protein that activates the innate and adaptive immune systems in humans. Sanofi’s phase 2 trials investigating Frexalimab rapidly reduced the disease activity up to 89% without depleting the lymphocytes, thus offering a safer treatment option. Sanofi already has a strong MS pipeline with its BTK drug, Tolebrutinib, to be approved in 2024. Frexalimab, once approved, is expected to further boost the company’s market share.

While mAbs are promising, factors such as high prices hinder their market penetration. Consequently, companies have been looking to develop biosimilar compounds for mAbs, aiming to lower drug prices while simultaneously maintaining and expanding their market share. For instance, in August 2023, the FDA approved Tyruko, a monoclonal antibody that is a biosimilar version of Biogen’s Natalizumab, for treating RRMS. Overall, an increased interest in R&D, coupled with the number of clinical trials underway indicate that mAbs will remain a favored approach in MS treatment for the foreseeable future.

EOS Perspective

The MS treatment market is expected to witness significant growth, reaching a value of US$39 billion by 2032. The increasing prevalence of MS and the demand for highly effective therapies are driving pharma companies to investigate and develop novel drugs. Extensive R&D efforts and the high unmet needs for treating PPMS and SPMS are the other key factors fueling market growth. In addition, governments worldwide are actively supporting drug research with substantial funding.

To gain higher market shares in the competitive MS market, pharma companies are fiercely focusing on innovation and differentiation. They are conducting extensive clinical trials to demonstrate their drugs’ efficacy and superiority. Additionally, these companies are striving to innovate in other aspects, such as drug safety, tolerability, ease of dosing, and convenient routes of administration.

The primary challenge slowing market growth is the high cost of drugs. MS drugs are very expensive, with prices consistently rising each year. According to a 2019 survey published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 40% of respondents terminated their treatment due to the high costs of DMTs. Hence, companies must navigate reimbursement processes and negotiate drug prices with payers to ensure broad patient access and increased market penetration.

Other challenges inhibiting the market growth include patent expiration and the complex nature of MS. Patent expiration allows low-priced generics to enter the market, negatively impacting drug sales. Additionally, the disease’s high heterogeneity limits companies’ ability to develop therapies for the long term.

However, despite these challenges, the MS treatment market looks promising and is continually evolving. In recent years, the treatment landscape has shifted towards introducing highly efficient and safer therapies earlier in the disease course to prevent complications in the longer term. Consequently, companies demonstrating higher drug efficacy are expected to gain a significant foothold in the market. In addition, substantial opportunities exist for companies that address neuroprotection, as the majority of the existing treatments primarily target the inflammatory part of the disease.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Anti-Obesity Drugs – Pharma Companies Race to Grab a Bite of the Pie

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For many years, bariatric surgery has been the go-to option for people struggling with obesity and obesity-induced conditions. However, for the last couple of years, another easier option has become available in the form of GLP-1-based weight loss drugs. This class of medicine mimics a hormone that helps reduce food intake and control appetite. These drugs have revolutionized the weight loss market, which was previously dominated by gimmicky and fad-based OTC solutions. Due to GLP-1’s proven effectiveness, there is soaring demand for these drugs, outstripping its current supply capacity. While only two players operate in this market, several leading drugmakers have been racing to develop their own version of the drug. Moreover, with additional proven merits of the drug beyond just weight loss, it has become more appealing for pharma players to invest in.

GLP-1 anti-obesity drugs make big waves in the pharmaceutical sector

Over the past few years, anti-obesity drugs have received immense attention from healthcare professionals, pharmaceutical companies, and the general public. A new class of medication that stands out is glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists, traditionally used for treating Type 2 diabetes. But along with managing diabetes, these drugs also suppress appetite and lower calorie intake by mimicking the GLP-1 hormone (a gastrointestinal hormone), which causes the patient to feel fuller longer and thereby prevents overconsumption. Regular intake of such drugs is deemed to result in a weight loss of about 15-25% of body weight in obese people.

GLP-1 agonists received FDA approval as anti-obesity drugs in 2021. Given their promising results, the demand for these drugs has increased immensely. However, despite the patient’s high out-of-pocket price of US$1,000 plus, there are severe shortages in the market.

Anti-Obesity Drugs – Pharma Companies Race to Grab a Bite of the Pie by EOS Intelligence

Anti-Obesity Drugs – Pharma Companies Race to Grab a Bite of the Pie by EOS Intelligence

Only two players operate in this highly-coveted market

The GLP-1-based medication is now marketed in two categories – one for managing diabetes and blood sugar levels and the other as a weight loss drug. The GLP-1-based weight loss drug market is highly consolidated, as only two players operate in this space. These are Denmark-based Novo Nordisk and US-based Eli Lilly.

Novo Nordisk, the market leader, received FDA approval for its weight loss injectable, Wegovy, in June 2021. This drug uses the same active ingredient as Novo Nordisk’s diabetes drugs, Ozempic and Rybelsus (oral); however, it has a different dosage and can also be used for weight loss in patients who do not have diabetes. That being said, Ozempic has also been used off-label for weight loss.

On the other hand, Eli Lilly’s injectable drug for weight loss, Zepbound, received FDA approval in November 2023. Eli Lilly’s glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide – GIP/GLP-1 injectable drug for diabetes, Mounjaro, has the same composition and dosage as Zepbound and is often prescribed off-label for weight loss as well.

While Novo Nordisk’s drugs, which use semaglutide as an active ingredient, result in weight loss of about 13 to 22 lbs, the drugs by Eli Lilly have tirzepatide as an active ingredient. They are stated to result in a weight loss ranging between 15 and 28 lbs.

From a price-point perspective, Wegovy has an out-of-pocket cost of US$1,349 per month, compared to Zepbound, which has an out-of-pocket cost of US$1,060 per month. Thus, while Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy has the first-mover advantage, Eli Lilly’s Zepbound is considered more effective and better priced.

Currently, both weight loss drugs by Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly come in the form of injectables. However, both companies are developing oral versions of the drug as they are easier to administer and more convenient to prescribe. They may also help ease supply constraints currently impacting the injectables. In June 2023, Novo Nordisk conducted Phase 3 trials for its once-daily oral Wegovy drug, according to which the drug helped obese adults lose about 15% of their body weight. Similarly, in June 2023, Eli Lilly conducted Phase 2 trials for its oral GLP-1 receptor for weight loss. The drug helped obese adults lose up to 14.7% of their body weight. Both companies are optimistic about the outcomes of their trials; however, the expected launch timelines for these drugs have yet to be determined.

Leading drugmakers race to compete in the growing anti-obesity drug market

Currently, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are the only two players operating in this market. However, several other leading pharmaceutical players have joined the race and are working towards developing their own version of the drug, either through in-house R&D or through strategic acquisitions.

Moreover, they are targeting their research towards developing and marketing a new generation of GLP-1-based medications that are administered orally, are longer lasting, and have additional health benefits and limited side effects.

In February 2024, US-based biopharmaceutical company Amgen successfully completed a Phase 1 clinical trial for its GLP-1 agonist drug, MariTide. As per the trials, the drug produced a 14.5% weight loss in patients administered the highest dose. Moreover, the company claims that the trial indicates that patients may need to take less frequent doses of MariTide (compared with current competition), and the weight loss achieved stays significantly longer. The company has begun its Phase 2 trial, with results expected by late 2024.

In December 2023, Swiss-pharmaceutical giant Roche acquired US-based Carmot for US$3.1 billion (US$2.7 billion upfront cash and US$400 million on certain milestones). This acquisition has helped put Roche on the map for obesity drug development. Carmot has two GLP-1 agonist molecules for weight loss, which are currently being tested in the mid to advanced stages of clinical trials. The first drug, CT-388, is a once-weekly injectable and has completed Phase 1 clinical trial, while the other drug, CT-996, is an oral drug currently undergoing Phase 1 trials.

In November 2023, UK drugmaker AstraZeneca entered into an agreement with Shanghai-based Eccogene, wherein the former licensed an oral once-daily GLP-1 receptor agonist called ECC5004 for the treatment of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other cardiometabolic conditions. For this, AstraZeneca agreed to pay Eccogene an upfront fee of US$185 million for the drug and a further payment of US$1.83 billion in future clinical, regulatory, and commercial milestones and tiered royalties. The drug is currently in Phase 1 development, and the company hopes to enter Phase 2 of clinical studies by the end of 2024. In the past, AstraZeneca stopped the development of two GLP-1 agonist drugs that were being developed in-house. The development of an injectable called Cotadutide was halted in April 2023, and an oral drug called AZD0186 was halted in June 2023 after their respective Phase 2b and Phase 1 clinical trials did not yield the desired results.

Pfizer, one of the most active companies in this regard, has faced multiple failures in their endeavor to develop a competitive obesity drug. In 2020, it started a clinical trial for its GLP-1 agonist weight loss drug, Lotiglipron. However, in June 2023, the company stopped developing the drug after its Phase 1 and Phase 2 drug interaction studies indicated a rise in liver enzymes in patients who took the drug once a day. In 2021, the company simultaneously began working on another GLP-1 receptor agonist, Danuglipron, which was to be taken twice daily. While the Phase 2a trial for the drug in June 2023 showed promise, the company halted the development of the drug post its Phase 2b trial in December 2023. The drug was scrapped as, despite significant weight loss, the trial patients experienced high rates of common gastrointestinal and mechanism-based adverse side effects. The company is now conducting a pharmacokinetic study with a once-daily version of the Danuglipron drug that will provide guidance on future development plans.

Pfizer’s failure with these two drugs demonstrates the struggle the leading pharma companies face to develop a safe, effective, and tolerable GLP-1 agonist for weight loss.

GLP-1 agonist drugs have benefits beyond diabetes and weight loss

Despite multiple setbacks, leading pharma companies are investing heavily in this space, as they understand the potential of these drugs. While currently, GLP-1 agonists are poised as diabetes and weight loss drugs, they have far more benefits. Data from ongoing clinical trials and independent studies suggest that GLP-1 agonists also help improve cardiovascular health and kidney function and help treat addiction and dementia.

In March 2024, Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy received FDA approval for reducing the risk of serious cardiovascular complications in adults with obesity and heart disease. This is based on the results shared from the company’s three-phase trial SELECT, which indicated that Wegovy reduced patients’ risk of major cardiovascular problems by about 20% during the five-year trial period.

Similarly, in 2019, the company started another clinical trial, FLOW, to determine the impact of GLP-1 agonists on kidney function. As per the interim results in October 2023, the trial displayed that Ozempic (Wegovy’s diabetes counterpart) reduced the risk of kidney disease progression and kidney and cardiovascular death in diabetes patients by 24%. Given its success, the company has halted the trial at the interim stage.

An initial study conducted on animals in March 2023 reportedly showed positive results for curbing addictive tendencies, such as drinking and smoking, with Ozempic. Currently, two trials are being undertaken to validate the use of GLP-1 agonists in humans to manage drug and alcohol addiction. Given the testimonies from current users of the drug, it is indicative that the drug has been helping users curb their addictions.

In addition to this, several researchers are also suggesting that GLP-1 could be used in the treatment of dementia and other cognitive disorders. This is based on the claim that GLP-1 agonists reduce the build-up of two proteins, amyloid, and tau, in the brain. These two proteins are known to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. In February 2022, a new trial at the University of Oxford was initiated to test people with high levels of amyloid and tau and at risk of developing dementia to determine if the use of GLP-1 agonists would result in a reduction in tau accumulation and brain inflammation. The interim results from the study have not yet been disclosed.

High prices and limited coverage pose as speedbumps for obesity drug adoption

While these obesity drugs have exploded in popularity in recent times and are only expected to grow further as their case use increases, they do have certain shortcomings and challenges that are important to address.

These drugs are known to cause several side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, and ulcers. They can also lead to severe complications, such as pancreatitis, in some extreme cases. While most of the common side effects of the drugs are manageable and justifiable given the risk-benefit ratio, one of the key issues with the drugs is that they need to be taken in perpetuity to keep the weight off. In other words, once a patient stops taking the drugs, the weight comes back. Given that these drugs are priced at more than US$1,000 per month at the moment, taking them constantly becomes a considerable challenge for patients.

Moreover, considered as ‘vanity-use’, these drugs are currently not covered by most medical insurance policies, and thus, patients have to pay for them out-of-pocket. While several employers in the USA are considering including these drugs in their health plans, they are still debating their merit. Employers acknowledge the benefits of these drugs as they help employees who battle with obesity improve their health and, in turn, improve overall performance and employee satisfaction. However, high costs and long-term use act as definite barriers, which make both employers and insurers reluctant to cover these drugs.

Insurers are slowly warming up to the inclusion of GLP-1 drugs in their plans

In March 2024, leading insurance company Cigna stated that it would expand insurance coverage to include weight loss drugs but would limit how much health plans and employers spend on the drug each year. As per Cigna’s benefits management unit, Evernorth Health Services, spending increases for these weight loss and diabetes drugs would be limited to a maximum of 15% annually. The plan offers a financial guarantee and enables employers and health plans to have greater predictability and control over their GLP-1 spending by offering clients (employers) a guarantee that the cost of weight loss and diabetes drugs would not increase by more than 15% annually.

As a part of the effort to limit how much employers spend on GLP-1-based drugs annually, Evernorth has entered into an agreement with Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly. However, the details of the agreement have not been disclosed.

While this is a good start, the drug would need better coverage by many other insurance players to reach a wider audience.

EOS Perspective

Given that about 12% of the global population and more than 40% of the American population grapple with obesity (as per WHO and 2022 statistics by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, USA, respectively), weight loss drug manufacturers Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are sitting on pharma goldmines. The weight loss drugs market, expected to reach US$100 billion by 2030, is poised as one of the most promising sectors for the pharma sector. Thus, it is no surprise that several leading players are investing heavily to join Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly at the top, either through in-house R&D or through acquisitions.

However, developing these drugs proves to be challenging for drugmakers, as evidenced by the failures of several companies in creating their own versions. We can expect the sector to consolidate further as larger pharma companies look to acquire niche players with their trials being in advanced stages.

Moreover, in a bid to find their footing in this promising sector, pharma players are trying to develop advanced versions of the drug that have benefits beyond just weight loss and offer long-term benefits. This is also because, at the moment, these drugs are not approved by most insurance companies, which makes them extremely expensive for the wider population to afford. This, in turn, is withholding these drugs from becoming mainstream and is thereby preventing them from tapping into their true growth potential. That being said, Wegovy’s recent FDA approval for reducing cardiac complications in people with obesity and heart disease will likely tip the insurers’ coverage scales. Insurance companies are likely to cover the drug in the near future.

Since no other drug in the market offers proven cardiac benefits along with weight loss (including Eli Lilly’s), it is safe to say that Novo Nordisk is way ahead in the race and will dominate the market for the foreseeable future. Thus, to be able to compete in the market, it is not enough for drugmakers to develop obesity drugs offering just weight benefits. They would need to develop drugs that offer higher efficiency or additional therapeutic benefits along with weight loss and price them competitively.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Diagnostics Gain Spotlight amid Coronavirus Outbreak

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It took 60 days for global COVID-19 infections to reach 100,000, but this figure doubled in the following 12-14 days, and the addition of next 100,000 cases took only 3 more days. Because of highly contagious nature of the novel coronavirus, testing became essential to keep the epidemic under control. As a result, there was a spike in global demand for coronavirus testing kits. As per McKinsey’s estimates, in May 2020, global demand for coronavirus testing was 14 million to 16 million per week, but less than 10 million tests were being conducted.

Industry was quick to respond to the rise in demand

The widespread outbreak of coronavirus required the manufacturers to develop and launch new testing kits in large volumes in a short duration of time. Diagnostics kit suppliers responded promptly to this spike in demand by developing new coronavirus testing kits. Roche Diagnostics, for instance, developed coronavirus test in about six weeks – such diagnostic tests generally take 18 months or more to reach regulatory review stage. In 2020, Roche developed a total of 15 solutions for coronavirus diagnosis.

Governments across the world eased up regulatory procedures for manufacturers in order to allow rapid development and commercialization of the coronavirus testing kits. This paved way for many companies to quickly launch new products to the market. For instance, a Korean firm, Seegene, developed coronavirus testing kit in two weeks and got approval from Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) in another two weeks’ time. Such approvals generally take more than six months in Korea.

Furthermore, standard regulatory process for approval of diagnostic kits in the USA typically take several months, but considering the public health emergency in the event of pandemic, the FDA issued emergency use authorizations to expedite the process of bringing coronavirus test kits to the market. Emergency use authorizations are like interim approvals provided on the basis of sufficient evidence to suggest a diagnostics test is effective and the benefits outweighs potential risks.

By the end of 2020, the FDA granted emergency use authorization to 225 diagnostic tests for coronavirus detection, including test kits developed by Abbott Laboratories, Roche, Cepheid, Clinomics, Princeton BioMeditech, UPenn, Inno Diagnostics, Ipsum Diagnostics, Co-Diagnostics, QIAGEN, DiaSorin, BioMérieux, and Humanigen.

Leading companies with adequate resources quickly ramped up their production capacity by multifold in line with the rising demand. For instance, a US-based firm, Thermo Fisher Scientific, increased the global production of coronavirus test kits from 50,000 per week in January 2020 to 10 million per week by June 2020. In 2020, Roche spent CHF 137 million (~US$149 million) to ramp up production capacity and supply chain for all COVID-19-related testing products.

Some companies also received government grants and private investment to scale up their production capacity. For instance, in July 2020, BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company) received a US$24 million investment from the US government to scale up production of coronavirus test kits by 50%, thereby, enabling the company to produce 12 million test kits per month by the end of February 2021.

The pandemic encouraged the shift towards decentralizing diagnostics

While the test kit manufacturers were trying to achieve round the clock production to meet the demand, they struggled with global supply chain disruptions which were also induced by the pandemic.

Coronavirus testing requires several components including specialized chemicals and laboratory testing equipment. Roche, for example, manufactures coronavirus tests in the USA but procures components of the test kit from different countries. One of the important components of test kits is reagent, a specialized liquid used for the identification of coronavirus. Roche produces these reagents mainly in Germany and few other production sites located across the world.

Further, the test kits are often compatible only with company’s own testing equipment and systems. For instance, the Roche cobas SARS-CoV-2 test kit runs on the cobas 6800 or 8800 systems. The cobas 8800 system includes approximately 23,000 components which are procured from different parts of the world. In addition to this, the production involves 101 sub-assemblies and accumulated assembly time of about 450 hours each. Final production of these instruments from Roche takes place in Switzerland.

Manufacturing of a coronavirus testing kit involves complex supply chain. Spread of coronavirus forced countries to implement extreme measures including lockdowns and trade restrictions which impacted the supply chain of test kit manufacturers. Producing all the testing components and equipment at one place is near to impossible. For instance, the production of reagents involves highly sophisticated and sensitive processes, and thus, setting up a new production site to manufacture reagents on a large scale would take several months. Setting up a new production site and streamlining the procurement for such testing equipment and systems would take several years. Hence, the diagnostics firms upped their R&D activities in an effort to develop tests that could be conducted without sophisticated laboratory systems and equipment.

Moreover, the high demand for testing compelled the diagnostics practices to evolve far beyond the traditional laboratory-based business model. The need for community testing during the pandemic that challenged the operational capabilities of hospitals and diagnostics labs dictated the importance of decentralizing diagnostics for improved patient care. This gave rise to increased demand for point-of-care testing.

The two most widely used diagnostic tests for coronavirus detection are Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) and Antigen tests. RT-PCR test detect viral RNA in samples from the upper and lower respiratory tract, while antigen test is used to detect viral proteins in samples.

RT-PCR test is considered gold standard for coronavirus detection since the accuracy and reliability is high compared to Antigen test. However, RT-PCR test needs to be processed in a laboratory-setting and had turnaround time of several hours. Hence, there was a need for development of RT-PCR tests that could give faster results without the support of laboratory equipment.

On March 18, 2020, Abbott announced the launch of their first coronavirus test kit that was compatible with their system ‘m2000 RealTime’ which processed 470 tests in 24 hours and another ‘Alinity m’ system with capacity to run 1,080 tests in a 24-hour period. Since there was demand for more portable and fast testing solution, on March 30, 2020, Abbott launched a RT-PCR point-of-care test that ran on ID NOW system, which is the size of a small toaster. The test delivers results in 13 minutes or less. The test price is in the range of ~US$100.

Further, despite the limitations of accuracy and reliability, in some cases antigen test is preferred because there is no requirement of a lab specialist to conduct this test, thus making it less expensive, and the result is available in a few minutes. The industry saw an opportunity here and quickly developed rapid antigen tests that can be conducted at home without any assistance. For instance, in December 2020, the US FDA granted emergency use authorization to an Australia-based firm Ellume’s antigen test (priced at ~US$30) as first over-the-counter at-home diagnostic test for coronavirus detection. Soon after, Abbott also received emergency use authorization from FDA for its at-home rapid antigen test (priced at US$25) giving results in 15 minutes.

Other countries around the world also followed the suit by extending official authorization to the home-based tests for coronavirus detection. For instance, in February 2021, Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) granted special approval for the first time to antigen home-test kits developed by US-based Healgen Scientific as well as China-based firms Xiamen Boson Biotech and Hangzhou Laihe Biotech.

Diagnostics Gain Spotlight amidst Coronavirus Outbreak by EOS Intelligence

Coronavirus crisis accelerated innovation in the field of diagnostics

In a united fight against the pandemic, governments, private sector, as well as NGOs and philanthropists across the world stepped forward to raise funds to bolster R&D efforts in coronavirus diagnostics. As per data compiled by Policy Cures Research (an Australian firm engaged in global health R&D data collection and analysis), from January 2020 to September 2020, funds worth over US$800 million were committed for coronavirus diagnostics R&D. The firm also indicated that 450+ coronavirus diagnostics products were in R&D pipeline since January 2020 to December 2020.

With firms looking to capitalize on exponentially rising demand for coronavirus testing, the development of new diagnostics technologies beyond conventionally used tests (i.e., RT-PCR and antigen tests) picked up significantly.

For instance, in May 2020, the FDA granted an emergency use authorization to first ever CRISPR-based rapid test kit developed by Sherlock Biosciences. CRISPR, an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a gene editing technology which allows to alter the DNA. Sherlock’s rapid test is a paper-strip test (like a pregnancy test) which can be conducted at point-of-care and does not require any additional equipment for processing of the test. The test works by programming a CRISPR enzyme to release a detectable signal in presence of genetic signature for coronavirus.

In March 2020, US-based Surgisphere launched a smartphone app using Artificial Intelligence algorithms to detect coronavirus infection. This app confirms diagnosis by integrating the findings of chest CT scan and laboratory tests with clinical symptoms and exposure history. Preliminary studies found that the tool can detect coronavirus infection with 95.5% accuracy.

Further, application of nanotechnology for diagnosis of coronavirus infection is also underway. Canada-based Sona Nanotech developed a rapid antigen test using gold nanoparticles. This is a strip test that can be conducted at point-of-care and gives result in 15 minutes. Research is in progress to develop wearable sensors using nanoparticles for detection of coronavirus. In January 2021, University of California San Diego received US$1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop a test strip containing nanoparticle that change color in presence of coronavirus. This test strip can be attached on a mask and used to detect coronavirus in a user’s breath or saliva.

Innovation wave was not limited to development of different types of tests but also expanded to consumables. For instance, in March 2020, HP (a company manufacturing 3D printers) teamed up with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School) to develop 3D printed nasopharyngeal swab (typically used to collect sample for coronavirus testing) and within 35 days the clinically validated swab was ready for use. By May 2020, these swabs were commercially available for the US market following the FDA approval. In June 2020, a Belgium-based 3D printing service provider, ZiggZagg, began to plan large-scale production of swabs on their fleet of HP 3D printers. By October 2020, the company had 3D-printed over 700,000 swabs for the Belgian market.

EOS Perspective

A market research firm, The Business Research Company, estimated that the global COVID-19 rapid test kits market was expected to reach a value of US$14.94 billion in 2020. Due to worldwide vaccination drive, the market is expected to decline at a rate of -54.9%, to reach US$1.37 billion in 2023.

Though the demand for coronavirus tests is expected to diminish eventually, it has supported rapid development of diagnostics infrastructure which will remain. In India, for example, only one laboratory was performing molecular assays for COVID-19 in January 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted that balance. By May 2020, some 600 Indian RT-PCR laboratories had been set up in an effort to help manage the pandemic, thousand-fold increasing testing capacity. The additional capacity will likely remain in place as the pandemic subsides, leaving the RT-PCR assay as the dominant method for diagnosing most viral infections in India in the future.

Furthermore, with surge in demand for the coronavirus testing, the provision of diagnostic services expanded beyond the purview of hospitals and laboratories. Mobile testing facilities and drive-through testing sites propped up with development of point-of-care diagnostics. For instance, Walgreens, one of the largest pharmacy chains in the USA, offer coronavirus drive-thru testing at 6,000+ locations across the country. Further, there is high-demand for home-based testing.

Diagnostics firms riding high on the COVID-19 gains have been actively scouting opportunities to strengthen their positioning in the market and prepare for the post-pandemic world. High demand for COVID-19 test kits boosted the revenues of diagnostic companies, with Roche, Thermo Fisher, PerkinElmer, Hologic, and DiaSorin among the companies benefiting. With strong balance sheet, these companies went on with M&A flurry to advance their diagnostic portfolio and other core business verticals.

As the virus originated in China, the country was better prepared and first to develop relevant detection mechanisms. By the time the virus spread to the other parts of the world, Chinese companies were ready to export detection kits globally. Coronavirus outbreak helped China to penetrate major markets such as EU and the USA in which the indigenous diagnostics companies traditionally had a stronger hold. China was a net importer of diagnostic reagents and test kits in 2019. But in 2020, after the outbreak of coronavirus, China ramped up its production capacity of diagnostic reagents and test kits, and as a result its export growth increased by more than 500% and the country became a net exporter of diagnostic reagents and test kits by the end of 2020.

This indicates that the outbreak of the pandemic has shifted the market dynamics on many fronts. As the pandemic slowly subsides, some of these shifts might partially revert, however, the way testing is performed is likely to remain.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Will Pharma Tweet Louder? 6 Rules of Doing it Right on Social Media

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Initially considered to be exclusively a tool for common people to connect with friends and share their private pictures, social media platforms have now gained the status of a potent communication channel eagerly used by companies across the world. While the expansion of social media is influencing the way businesses are conducted today, pharma and healthcare industry has been somewhat slow and reluctant to use it to its fullest potential.

By 2012, Facebook user base crossed 1 billion mark, increasing by 200 times since 2005, while Twitter recorded tremendous growth, reporting 200 million active users sharing 400 million tweets per day. While some industries such as consumer goods, retail, and hospitality have been benefitting from engaging with their customers through a range of social media platforms, other sectors, including pharma and healthcare, have been slow to join the ‘social crowd’.

Points of concern

There is a reason why healthcare-related sectors were late on the social media map. Creating an open platform for communication on health and drugs aspects, raises a range of concerns: the FDA regulations, patient confidentiality, cyber security, unavoidable off-label use discussions, uncontrolled negative comments, and risks of providing wrong medical advice that could lead to lawsuits. The FDA in particular, plays an important role here, through its Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC), which lays out the rules of the content that can and cannot be communicated, what content must be included and the manner in which the communication must occur. The fears associated with social media activity monitoring by the FDA, typically originate from three problems:

  • Lack of clarity and formal guidelines – in 2011, the FDA published draft guidelines, and it is yet to develop definitive rules on social media policy. The FDA is acting slow, and there is no clarity on dos and don’ts for social media engagement, yet the authority regularly scans the social space to monitor risky communication, while pharma companies find the rules of the game ambiguous

  • User-initiated off-label use discussions – a common issue in pharma social media platforms is user questions and discussions on off-label use of drugs, i.e. using a drug in a different way than described in the approved drug label or leaflet. This is considered unsolicited content and companies must respond and correct such a content occurring in public forum as these discussions might encourage dangerous experiments with drugs by patients or might be confused with recommended and approved use of a drug

  • Adverse event reporting obligation – the FDA obliged pharma companies to immediately report any adverse drug effect or reaction they learn about. Social media give platform for large numbers of patients to share their experience with adverse drugs effects, and the companies are afraid they will have to report it, which may cause investigations, bad press, and might lead drug being banned from sale

Similar fears are faced by non-US pharma companies too, as the FDA’s local counterpart authorities introduce similar regulations on communication via social media, which at times can be even stricter than the American ones.

Game worth the candle

Ignoring the risks by pharma companies can unfold a range of undesirable scenarios, a fact that has kept many drug makers hesitant of engaging in social media for quite some time. But this does not mean that pharma and healthcare organizations are still not present in social media at all. To the contrary, pharma companies, healthcare providers, device manufacturers, and health insurers have started to listen and engage with users through social platforms, though many of them still do it cautiously and have still not been able to unlock the social media’s full potential. These players have started to understand that with careful moves, the benefits will outweigh the risks:

  • generate engagement and discussion around health issues, which contributes to the positive reputation and brand image, and obviously – increase sales,

  • get quick, cheap, first-hand information on drugs’ effects on a large scale, which brings valuable insights that are not available from regular clinical trials whose scale is always smaller,

  • gather information invaluable in building marketing strategies, including pointers on price perceptions, drug availability as well as patients’ opinions about competitors’ drugs.

Who’s doing it?

Though it was estimated that in 2011, 90% of the pharmaceutical industry was still inactive on social media, currently, this has changed (though today’s participation share is unknown). Several pharma-sponsored communities are now active across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus, on one or multiple platforms, with a differing level of interactivity and different weight being put on inbound versus outbound marketing. Some of the examples include:

  • Roche’s Accu-Check Diabetes Link, a diabetes-support community with information, discussions, and blogs

  • GSK’s Alli Circles well-being, weight loss, and health community

  • Novartis’ CV Voice for cystic fibrosis patients and Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia own community-based site CML Earth

  • Pfizer’s community ‘getold.com’ targeting the expanding elderly group of the American population

  • Sanofi US’ Diabetes support community

  • Soon-to-be-launched Boehringer Ingelheim’s Facebook-based game, where players create and operate their own pharmaceutical firm, and discover imaginary medicines through virtual laboratory

Getting it right

It appears that the healthcare industry is finally attempting to catch up on the social media revolution in spite of a slow start. From primarily information dissemination, it is now moving towards real time engagement between physicians, patients, and other stakeholders. Soon, developing a social media policy will no longer be an option for pharma companies. But this should not be seen as a burden, but rather as an immense opportunity for the pharmaceutical companies to develop trust, build brand image, and impart health education. Drug makers that want to be successful on their social media path should consider 6 basic rules of online presence for pharma companies:

  1. Take your risks seriously – social media engagements, especially in pharma domain, always raise privacy, legal, and confidentiality concerns among the participants and monitoring bodies. Extra cautiousness in operating online communities is of utmost importance, including constant monitoring of the content being added by individual users and patients. Social platforms also pose risk of incorrect drug information or unfair accusations that might damage your image, but it can be flipped to an advantage, using the platform to quickly clarify and avert unwanted comments, provided that you have a dedicated, competent staff handling your social media

  2. Control your speakers – given the high risks and ambiguity of formal guidelines, there is a need for internal policy or guideline book listing dos and don’ts for online communication, content approval process, crisis management practice, confidential information sharing policy for employees running social platforms on behalf of the company

  3. Know your target audience – the social media pharma-related content must stay relevant and target focused groups to have the right impact. Patients with a particular disease or ailment look for relevant, detailed information, and they typically already know quite a bit about the problem. Expertise must be shown along with dedication to creating high quality content, that is useful, new, and (ideally) entertaining

  4. Get the objective right – social media is not another advertising board. The primary aim of the social media presence is to generate engagement as well as share and manage knowledge by facilitating interaction and discussions. This must take precedence over advertising

  5. Be transparent – transparency is always appreciated by consumers and patients. The link with the company must be clear, users working for the company must disclose their affiliation, and negative comments, unless unjustified or vulgar, cannot be censored

  6. Understand that social media are not a lone island – social media activity and content must be aligned with overall marketing strategy and be used cohesively with all other marketing channels, ideally to complement each other. Social media cannot become a neglected child of the marketing department in a long run, it must be maintained actively and linked to other marketing efforts whenever possible (e.g. to disseminate important announcement teasers, generating traffic to blog entries, or provide interactive content as part of larger marketing campaign including traditional media)

Social media engagements by drug makers might seem only as a nice publicity stunt, but it is so much more than that. Pharma companies, as most players across many industries, finally started to realize that listening and engaging with conversation with the customer pays off in many aspects. Just as was the case in consumer goods or retail sectors, social media will continue to change the pharma industry on a large scale. Players who want to matter, should not allow themselves to stay behind, even considering the risks involved.

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