Evolution of Drug Launch Strategies During Covid-19

Drug Launch Strategies During Covid-19

Covid Pharma and Biotech Drug Launch Strategies Become the New Normal


The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted pharma and biotech companies, both small and large, forcing them to shift their approach to drug launch strategies. Across the industry, companies that received approval and launched products either shortly before or during the pandemic had to evolve their launch strategies on the fly to adapt and react to the new challenges brought about by Covid-19.

These launch strategies included an abrupt shift from in-person marketing and sales tactics to online promotion, a shift in outreach to key customers, and other changes in commercialization strategies. While some companies made the choice to delay their launches until the pandemic restrictions eased off slightly, other companies chose to proceed with launches already in the pipeline. Many companies that faced launch during COVID were able to adapt to the new challenges.

Commercial teams had to focus on agility to optimize their drug launch strategies during COVID. Herspiegel worked with cross-functional leaders of product launches in primary care, oncology, and rare disease to ensure organization readiness and market success. A high level breakdown of the strategies utilized include:

    1. Scenario planning and agile decision making
    2. Pivoting the sales team from in-person to virtual and hybrid engagements
    3. Increased non-personal promotion


1. Scenario planning and agile decision making


Drug launches are risky. Drug launches during Covid even more risky. A recent Herspiegel analysis illustrated that the pharmaceutical industry is both rapidly evolving and inherently risky. Many product launches fail, demonstrating the need for the evaluation of capital-generating opportunities to secure necessary funding to commercialize an asset for smaller companies. Additionally, larger firms are usually better equipped than small biotechs to successfully commercialize new products.

Focused launch teams with structured plans and governance are able to make decisions quickly. Commercial leaders huddled across screens to define immediate action plans, information needs to inform future decisions, and communication paths to field teams. Those teams that successfully launched during the pandemic demonstrated their teams’ agility.

It might seem that pharma has been dominated by Covid-19 vaccines and treatments so far in 2021. The FDA has also kept other drug approvals flowing, despite the pandemic, and we expect that momentum to continue. There are many drugs that have made it to late stage trials, but there are 10 novel drug approvals that we have been watching closely.

Biohaven adapted to digital tools for their launch of Nurtec ODT, but their strong, pre-existing virtual presence helped them be successful right out of the gate. The drugmaker had also pre-planned DTC TV advertising and managed to quickly pivot into a robust commercial campaign despite lockdowns. But what really made them win was their decision to stick with the original launch strategy, despite the restrictions driven by the pandemic. Their plan was to drive healthcare practitioner awareness; ‘activate’ patients; and ensure access and affordability.

“A product launch is, in many ways, a company’s first impression with doctors and patients,” says Keli Walbert, executive VP, infused medicines and strategic marketing, Horizon Therapeutics. “As a result, nimble frontline operations have been a continuously important factor for us while launching Tepezza, especially because most of our launch has taken place during a pandemic. We have had to be flexible and quick on our feet to adapt to the changing needs of doctors and patients.”



2. Pivoting the sales team from in-person to hybrid and fully virtual engagement


The world went into lockdown. Hospitals and doctors offices focused on treating emergency situations only. Almost instantly, companies and people pivoted to virtual meetings and life indoors. This forced companies to quickly rethink their sales and marketing strategies.

Launch teams with a first product commercialization and a newly hired sales force that had been trained for a large personal promotion presence who now had to apply their training to a 100% virtual experience had to pivot. Being virtual instead of in the field made it more difficult to increase physician trust and familiarity. In fact, early in the pandemic, many physicians predicted no new starts, a threat to product launch success. Sales teams needed to adjust to support and education, while supporting the patients who were starting. As a whole, physicians were reluctant to prescribe new medications.

A commercial team launching an oncology brand in the height of the pandemic lockdown, made the decision to continue to hold 120 peer-to-peer education events in the area of hematology in the first three months of their US launch and had 6,200 interactions with healthcare professionals both virtually and in person.

“We were hit by the COVID pandemic in the middle of our launch preparations,” chief commercial officer Roland Wandeler at MorphoSys said. “I was impressed with how the team came together to rethink the way that we can engage physicians, to rethink the way that we can reach out digitally and to rethink the ways that we can combine personal interactions with the new virtual reality that we have in the pandemic.”


Evofem Biosciences, made the important decision to pivot their launch strategy of Phexxi, a new hormone free birth control prescription vaginal gel. The original launch plan relied heavily on a large sales organization reaching out directly to physicians. With the pandemic hitting, Evofem decided to expand the digital approach, and in the month of February 2021 more than 800 women leveraged the Phexxi concierge telehealth platform.

Saundra Pelletier, Chief Executive Officer, President, and Executive Director of Evofem Biosciences credits the success of the platform with the fact that due to COVID a lot of women were home at that time. “Telemedicine has helped us continue to drive demand during COVID.”


Both pharma companies and healthcare professionals had to re-calibrate how they approached prescribing and delivering drugs to patients during COVID, because an in-person only approach was not an option.  Some companies pivoted faster and better than others and most companies realized that hybrid and virtual had to become the new normal.


3. Increased non-personal promotion


MorphoSys focused their 150-person sales and marketing team on 11,000 key prescribers. HCP engagement was driven by interest in the brand’s value proposition.  By the end of 2020, Monjuvi, as the first drug specifically approved for second-line DLBCL, had reached 400 care sites. According to MorphoSys CEO Jean-Paul Kres, MorphoSys and Incyte have reached a roughly 50% share of voice for Monjuvi in the DLBCL space, which means about half of all engagements with healthcare practitioners in this field are coming from reps promoting the CD19 antibody drug.

“2020 was a transformational year for MorphoSys. Despite the challenges brought on by the global pandemic, we delivered one of the most successful years as a company. The accelerated FDA approval of Monjuvi was an important milestone in our transformation into an integrated commercial-stage biopharma company,” said Jean-Paul Kress, M.D., Chief Executive Officer of MorphoSys.”

With a reduction in HCP engagement caused by COVID-19, many companies quickly shifted T&E resources into increased non-personal promotion and DTC advertising. While pre-Covid  companies would usually delay DTC marketing for 6 months or more after rep engagement with HCPs, COVID required agility.

The pharma industry’s promotional environment is forever changed. “The pandemic forced us to take a hard look at our business plans and adapt them to thrive in a virtual environment,” Keli Walbert, SVP, Infused Medicines and Strategic Marketing Horizon Therapeutics.

The combination of challenges coming from the pandemic and market competition forced pharma companies to focus on multiple types of interactions, including activating patients earlier than normal. Biohaven decided that they had to accelerate their patient marketing campaign for Nurtec. The first ads began to air in March-April of 2020. This was greatly expedited, as typical DTC campaigns begin 6 months after approval.

“We’re part of the drug supply chain and we have to get treatments to people with migraines. This can be the worst time to have a migraine,” he said. “It’s not only that stress can spark migraines but also that it’s important to try to keep people with migraines out of primary care offices and ERs.” –Biohaven CEO Vlad Coric


Agile launch strategies leveraged during the pandemic become the new normal


As the world begins to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry will continue to evolve. With in-person marketing becoming increasingly feasible, many companies will begin to transition back to some of their old tactics for product launches.

However, many of the lessons learned from the pandemic will provide new options for companies as the world moves into this ‘new normal’. The successful drug launch strategies that were developed during 2020 will likely remain present for years to come, as the virtual developments that arose during the time of lockdowns and social distancing will almost certainly be present moving forward.

Webinars allowing healthcare providers from across the country and globe to come together and discuss a product, and virtual meetings allowing a sales force to reach a wider number of both PCPs and specialists will continue to be critical launch tactics moving forward. Telemedicine and other virtual marketing tactics will also remain to enhance a company’s brand recognition and market entry.

As the landscape evolves, it may be difficult to understand exactly what strategies work for better or worse for these new drug launches.  We know for sure that some of these new strategies are here to stay. The pharma industry was always lagging behind when it came to digital strategies, but the pandemic forced drug companies to quickly pivot or lose revenue momentum on crucial new product launches. Digital is now the new normal and whether it means virtual conferences, marketing communication, or telehealth, it’s a giant leap forward for patients and businesses alike.

While pivoting strategies mid-launch and managing a virtual sales force is not easy, there are certain tactics that can be applied to help bring companies up to speed on current market expectations. Herspiegel will continue to monitor the changes in order to provide both assistance and guidance on how to ensure successful drug launch strategies for all their clients.