BOSTON (SHNS) – As the drug industry races towards a COVID-19 vaccine, some industry leaders are debating whether the moment could be used as an opportunity to boost the credibility and narrative around drug companies.
Nancy Simonian, CEO of the Cambridge-based Syros Pharmaceuticals, said companies in the industry tend to focus on success and not recognize areas where they have lost trust.
“In thinking about this pandemic, and what we do overall as an industry, we also have to be thinking about out-of-pocket costs, racial disparities, and access to our medicines,” Simonian said. “A lot of the other things that we’ve done, that’s been really positive, have been falling on deaf ears. And if you can’t pay for things that can change your lives, you don’t really care about having innovative products. I think that the COVID response has a real opportunity to change that for us.”
Simonian joined Rhythm Pharmaceuticals CEO David Meeker and Empiriko CEO Pam Randhawa for a panel discussion hosted by MassBio Wednesday on potential ways to shift the public narrative and perception of the drug industry. Many businesses still have employees working from home and the race for a vaccine signifies a potential return to pre-pandemic normalcy and a boon to economic growth.
In Massachusetts, many large venues and entertainment complexes cannot reopen until Phase 4 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan. The arrival of the phase is dependent on the creation and distribution of a vaccine to the highly contagious virus. Moderna, a Cambridge-based biotech firm, reached an agreement with the federal government earlier this month to manufacture and deliver 100 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
Concerns over the pricing of a potential vaccine have circulated throughout the nation as companies like Moderna edge closer to a final product. Simonian said the work associated with creating a successful drug requires a large amount of capital and carries the possibility of failure.
To demonstrate how she thinks about a product’s value, Simonian held up her phone, a tool that she said often costs hundreds of dollars.
“I don’t blink an eye around that. I think about the impact of a vaccine on the 7 billion people in this earth, putting people back to work, making them productive again, putting our kids back in school, allowing us to see our parents and our grandparents,” she said. “I think we have to go back to how do we value that, and making sure that people put this in the context of how transformative a vaccine could be to our entire world.”
In an attempt to further a positive message about the drug industry, which often attracts headlines associated with product costs, panelists said patient success stories and offering personal testimonials for why leaders in the industry got into the business could prove useful. As media reports come out each day about pharmaceutical businesses, Meeker said firms can “cut through the headlines with stories.”
“In the process of telling me that story, you tell me something about you, what you value, what you care about. And you also provide it in a narrative that’s suddenly memorable for me. You told me a story, I can remember that story, and I will relay that story,” said Meeker, whose company operates out of Boston. “There’s so much more I think we can do around storytelling through the patient lens.”
To get the stories out, Randhawa said, companies could utilize patient-centric digital platforms, support groups, and patient groups aside from traditional media campaigns.
“And I think we need to leverage those. Sometimes we as an industry are very shy about talking about those types of successes because it seems like we’re selling, but the fact is, that actually helps lots of people,” she said. “And not to mention that it also shifts the narrative to more of really understanding what our industry is about.”
Simonian said important pieces of the puzzle are credibility, trust, and who is telling the story. She said the more the industry can have patients, independent of drug companies, tell their stories the more credible they may seem.
“What can we do as an overall industry, including the people that their job is in the media, is to kind of get on the right side of this and be able to tell the good stories. Everybody likes to tell the bad stories and maybe that gets more clicks,” she said. “But that’s not really what’s going to be important in trying to kind of disseminate the very positive stories out there that exist.”