STORY INLINE POST
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the start of a pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The virus and disease were first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, rapidly spreading worldwide.
The number of cases and the number of deaths continued to rise rapidly in the following months, requiring countries to escalate their response and take action as soon as possible. Such actions were to help delay the pandemic, giving healthcare systems time to prepare and assimilate the impact. However, the virus was much faster.
Irrespective of the disease’s trajectory in each country, there were several actions that needed to be taken. There was no one-size-fits-all approach across the world. The past two years have been full of incongruities from health organizations, governments and people, as well as paradoxes and absurdities. Was/is COVID-19 a common enemy? Are we still at its mercy?
In some ways it is or has been. And yes, we are somewhat at its mercy still.
However, each country has approached the pandemic differently, following:
- their own timelines
- facing difficulties with previously established budgets
- never contemplating or having experienced this emergency and
- tackling the problem as swiftly as possible
Was/is there worldwide solidarity? Were the pharmaceutical companies part of that solidarity?
It is often said that confusion is often but a first step toward clarity. The world is/was/has been confused. Are we still confused? Have all our questions been answered? Far from it.
The word “pandemic” is not a word to be used lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic did not change the WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It didn’t change what the WHO was doing, and didn’t change what countries had to do at the time and further on. We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This was the first pandemic caused by this virus.
Describing the situation as a pandemic required countries to accelerate their efforts, striking the right balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights. This was no different for pharmaceutical companies. They had to intervene in all the steps along the way.
While every country was responsible for determining the nature and timing of measures introduced to prevent or slow down viral transmission, the WHO considered that social distancing and quarantine measures needed to be implemented in a timely and thorough manner. This was also true at pharmaceutical firms, offices and manufacturing plants.
Some of the measures that countries considered adopting were: closures of schools and universities, implementation of remote working policies, minimizing the use of public transport in peak hours and deferment of nonessential travel.
We soon learned that COVID-19 impacted the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions most severely. In a spirit of solidarity, we all had to be ready to contribute our part to protect those at the highest risk. As individuals, practicing good hygiene and prevention measures, as well as applying measures of social distancing, including avoiding crowded places, still today, continue to be very important.
It was recommended that those who do not feel well should stay home and contact their healthcare providers. Solidarity meant that we had to strictly abide by the regulations and procedures being put in place by health authorities in our countries, register symptoms, get tested (once it was available), and finally vaccinated as vaccines rolled out.
Many government health authorities have taken an active role, working side by side with countries and regional partners in their efforts to prevent or mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our citizens.
The WHO and government authorities from each country have humbly acknowledged that COVID-19 has been a fast-evolving situation. We may not always have the best evidence at hand on which to base our decisions, but we did not have the luxury of time to wait until better evidence became available.
In the face of such an alarming situation with a heavy toll on our healthcare services and vulnerable individuals, there could be no doubt that the time-honored precautionary principle needed to guide our decisions when concerning the pharmaceutical world.
Two aspects need to be considered as part of the same puzzle: 1. the pharmaceutical industry as a company and provider, and, 2. its massive number of employees.
No doubt the pharmaceutical industry had to change its way of doing business.
So, what did the pharmaceutical industry do?
- Sent everyone home
- Canceled all face-to-face meetings: advisory boards, focus groups, medical visitations
- Postponed internal gatherings for all personnel
- Changed training sessions
- Canceled hiring new staff in the usual way
- Put on hold clinical research trials on other topics
- Focused on COVID for vaccines and treatment
Home-offices became a new world for all. It was a difficult switch to become used to. Staff staying at home would never be the same as having them in the next cubicle, office or on another floor. Communication was different, impersonal, long distance – even if within the same city. The “personal touch” was gone. There was no interaction, sharing of work or even life and family events. Longer hours were consumed on work – burnout, resilience and mindfulness came to be common and highlighted in our everyday jobs.
The pharmaceutical world suffered.
No doubt the pharmaceutical industry had to change its way of doing business. Patient centricity was at a stalemate. Medical representatives, medical and scientific liaisons were kept from visiting physicians and key opinion leaders. Clinical research trials were paused or came to a standstill for a while.
Part 2 of this series will touch upon how the pharmaceutical companies optimized and guided their employees in such a critical situation.