Several major drug launches were stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. We took a look at some of them in our previous blog post and discussed the cost that delays can have to pharma, physicians, and patients. Today, we look at the flip side of the coin. Several pharma companies were able to pivot to almost entirely virtual launches and not only avoid delays, but give physicians confidence to prescribe new therapies despite face-to-face visits remaining low and congresses remaining off the table. Digital speaker events, physician engagement, and patient information and education tools are just a handful of examples of how tech was used to ensure launches went ahead and new treatments would have the best chance of reaching the patients that need them.
Drug Launches During COVID-19: Success Stories
There is a general consensus that the future of drug launches will be more reliant on digital - read e.g. BMS's Nadim Ahmed weighing in on their hematology launch experience. But who has successfully pulled off a digital launch? Here are our top five picks:
Nexletol & Nexlizet (Esperion) for high cholesterol
Esperion planned to launch its lipid-lowering agent, Nexletol (bempedoic acid), in March before releasing combo therapy, Nexlizet (bempedoic acid/ezetimibe), in July. When the pandemic hit, Esperion decided to push ahead with the March launch of Nexletol and build on the company’s existing digital infrastructure. The work that went into developing the digital tool necessary for the launch paid off in April, when the company held a virtual speaker series ahead of the launch of Nexlizet. Esperion CEO, Tim Maylebean, told Fierce Pharma that the event attracted five times the number of attendants that other companies were receiving for similar events. Esperion was even able to accelerate the launch of Nexlizet by one month, a move that was a testament to the power of its digital outreach and communication capabilities.
Tepezza (Horizon Therapeutics) for bulging eyes
While Horizon was fortunate enough to launch its bulging eye drug, Tepezza, in January, the pandemic still hit at a critical time for any new drug. The ability to assure physicians and patients of a drug’s safety and efficacy early on can be a defining factor in both short-term and long-term adoption. Horizon already had digital promotional materials at the ready; that foresight helped the company not only mitigate the damage of COVID-19 but to thrive and exceed expectations. Since the launch, Horizon has revised its projected sales of Tepezza from $30 million - $40 million to around $200 million.
Jatenzo (Clarus Therapeutics) for testosterone replacement
Clarus Therapeutics pushed through with the launch of its testosterone replacement tablet, Jatenzo, despite the disruption caused by COVID-19. Clarus CEO, Bob Dudley, told Fierce Pharma how his team adapted to the pandemic using digital tools and how doing so opened many physicians’ eyes to the benefits the technology offers, saying:
“Physicians, when they embraced the technology, then we found that they were keenly interested in learning about something new.”
– Clarus Therapeutics CEO, Bob Dudley
Jelmyto (UroGen) for upper tract urothelial cancer
When UroGen received FDA approval for Jelmyto (mitomycin gel) in April, the drug became the first therapy approved to treat low-grade upper tract urothelial cancer (UTUC). Importantly, Jelmyto is a non-surgical treatment, making it a safer option for UTUC patients, most of whom are 70 years old and above. With Jelmyto addressing an important and unmet medical need, UroGen was determined to avoid delaying the planned July 1 launch. They did so by committing to a virtual launch and dedicating resources to digital engagement tools for physicians. While it remains to be seen how Jelmyto performs in terms of sales, which some analysts estimate will reach $375 million per year, the company’s innovative treatment and commitment to launching in the midst of the pandemic earned UroGen praise in the media and interest in investment circles.
Kynmobi (Sunovion) for intermittent “off” episodes of Parkinson’s disease
Sunovion began commercial activities for Kynmobi (apomorphine HCI), a treatment for the acute, intermittent treatment of “off” episodes in patients with Parkinson’s disease, at the end of September. While Sunovion had the benefit of launching Kynmobi a little later in the year, rather than in the chaotic months at the start of the pandemic, it was still necessary to execute a successful virtual launch if it is going to compete with drugs such as Inbrija (Acorda Therapeutics), Nourianz (Kyowa Kirin), and Ongentys (Neurocrine Biosciences). To do so, Sunovion is calling on virtual physician engagement, virtual peer-to-peer training for doctors, and digital educational programs for patients and caregivers. With COVID-19 cases once again on the rise, these tools could be invaluable in helping Kynmobi get off to a strong start.
What about patients?
COVID-19 has forced pharma to adapt their communication channels like never before. While some companies, particularly the smaller ones, were able to quickly pivot to virtual launches and avoid launch delays, others were caught cold and unable to react so quickly. As the months have gone by and the dust has settled, it is no good for those companies to wait for things to get ‘back to normal’.
The effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting and, in many ways, permanent. It is an inflection point for the use of digital tools within the pharmaceutical industry. For pharma companies big and small, it is crucial to build the skillset and digital infrastructure to compete in this new environment - and eventually win.
Most pharma companies need to first 'fix the basics', i.e. restore communication with customers/HCPs via digital channels. Effectively winning will require putting these channels to good use.
With HCPs going digital, an entirely new playing field opens up for pharma to not just promote, but actually enable outcomes. Digital-first HCPs will not just communicate digitally with MSLs, but increasingly with patients. They need tools that support and guide patients in a remote or - post-pandemic - hybrid world. Drug launches are a prime example of where pharma, by providing such tools, can create a win-win-win for patients, HCPs, and themselves, such as by addressing concerns about the real-world tolerability of new drugs.
Similarly, pharma can win by providing tools that reduce barriers to aspects such as remote onboarding and patient education. Self-administered injectables, such as Novo Nordisk’s recently approved therapy for adult growth hormone deficiency (GHD), Sogroya (somapacitan), and Novartis’ much-hyped MS treatment, Kesimpta (ofatumumab), will be tested in this respect. Will their digital educational tools and virtual patient training be strong enough to convince HCPs to prescribe them remotely?
Time will tell. But for those drugs and many others, getting the launch and early days right can be a critical factor in long-term success.
COVID-19: An inflection point for the use of digital technology
There are many factors that influence the success or failure of new drugs. In an unprecedented time of social distancing caused by a virus to which many of those needing these new drugs are particularly vulnerable, however, a pharmaceutical company’s digital skillset has never been so crucial. It is fundamental in providing physicians with the most important safety and efficacy information, in providing patients with support, educational materials, and training resources, and in facilitating patients and doctors working together under this 'new normal'. And while we all wait for COVID-19 to be a thing of the past, it is hard to imagine things ever returning back to the way they once were. Pharma companies must use digital tools to get new drugs onto the market and provide physicians and patients with everything required to ensure those drugs can succeed in the new paradigm.
The examples listed in this post show that it is possible.
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