By Arpa Garay, President, Global Pharmaceuticals, Commercial Analytics, and Digital Marketing, Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, New Jersey, USA
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our daily routines abruptly came to a halt. We knew that to flatten the curve and curb the pandemic, we had to change the way we lived by socially distancing to keep our families, friends and communities safe. And while our day-to-day work engagements changed, for those of us in the healthcare industry, our connection to our mission and drive to serve patients was stronger than ever. People around the world were relying on us to cope and learn how to operate effectively within this new reality. How could healthcare quickly adapt and continue to confront the evolving challenges related to COVID-19? Three key decisions helped us meet this challenge head-on and find new ways to accelerate innovation on behalf of our patients, our customers and our employees.
Embrace Partnerships & Collaboration
Collaboration, which has long been important to the healthcare ecosystem, became a critical part of the fight against the pandemic. We were galvanized into action with leaders from academia, government, industry and others working in tandem to identify and work toward solutions at rapid speed.
At my company, we collaborated with partners like Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to advance development of investigational candidates to help treat or prevent COVID-19.
Companies have also been partnering with each other to rapidly scale up supply of critical medicines and vaccines to address the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m proud of my company’s collaboration to support the manufacturing and supply of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.
The life sciences industry has increasingly worked together with non-traditional players as well to try to find solutions for patients. That’s one of the silver linings of the pandemic that will hopefully extend into the future.
Leverage Data & Digital Technologies
COVID-19 has shown both the promises and the challenges of accelerating the pace of clinical development. The process for developing novel, targeted treatments for COVID-19, that were not repurposed from therapeutic development efforts, has been slower due to the need for robust clinical review. But we’ve been able to leverage digital technologies and robust data analytics to accelerate our search for solutions. Whether it’s utilizing real-world data to design more efficient and patient-centric clinical trials, or taking a more analytics-driven approach with our commercialization strategy, we’ve continued to effectively harness information at our fingertips to drive innovation.
We utilized data analytics in the early days of the pandemic, when demand for one of our anesthesia drugs marketed outside of the United States exceeded projections due to the growing number of patients requiring intubation. Some markets requested 1000% of their normal volume, but there was immense volatility in the demand forecast due to lack of data, which made our planning for manufacturing and allocation extremely difficult. We needed a model that could tell us when, where and how many COVID-19 cases requiring intubation would likely occur over the upcoming months, but there was no such model available. In order to ensure our drug would reach the patients who needed it, we built a forward-looking forecast model using public COVID-19 data in just a few weeks. By using this model, we were able to continue to supply our drug to the markets, provide access to patients and manage our production schedule even with unprecedented volume.
Reimagine Ways of Working
The incredible progress made over the past year couldn’t have happened without dedicated healthcare workers around the world. For my company, many of our employees continued their critical work at our manufacturing sites and research labs while employees based outside of the lab transitioned to working from home. We took action quickly to transform our operations, developing new safety procedures to enable work while focusing on safeguarding their health. We also innovated ways of working for those who worked from home, focusing on supporting work-life balance and new ways to engage and collaborate remotely.
Looking ahead, as the industry makes efforts to sustain this pace of innovation for the long-term, we need to remember these takeaways. Working together is one of the fastest ways to find solutions. And relying more on data, digital technologies and new ways of working will be critical to our future success in finding breakthroughs that solve the most pressing healthcare challenges.
Arpa Garay is president of global pharmaceuticals, commercial analytics, and digital marketing at Merck & Co., where she leads the commercialization of assets as well as business development across the specialty, hospital, and chronic care businesses.