Reflecting on a year of crisis and implications for the future of pharma – APPA

Health Industry Hub | March 15, 2021 |
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Medical News: The Australian Pharmaceutical medical and scientific Professionals Association’s (APPA) webinar on 11 March 2021 brought together leaders in public health, industry and government health bodies to take stock of lessons learnt from the COVID-19 crisis and what this means for the future role and standing of pharmaceutical medicine in Australia.

Dr Gisela Mautner, APPA President, opened the session and handed over to Tegan Taylor from ABC Coronacast to moderate the discussion.

In reflecting on the COVID-19 impact, A/Professor Christopher Blyth, ATAGI CoChair said “Some of those images, particularly from hospitals and the community about the impact of COVID-19 really was earth shattering in my mind and showed that life was going to be different last year and potentially for a number of years to come.”

Penny Shakespeare, Deputy Secretary Health Resourcing Group, Department of Health noted “Our preparedness through the National Incident Room had prepared us for a range of different emergencies. Leaving aside all of the economic changes we had to make to deal with the impact of what this pandemic actually looked like, even within health, the response had to be so multifaceted. It was not like anything we had dealt with, not in our lifetimes.”

Elizabeth de Somer, CEO, Medicines Australia said “There were already concerns amongst consumers about pharmacies not being able to deliver in communities that were affected by bushfires. During the COVID pandemic, there was this terrifying vision that medicines would be stockpiled and there would be panic buying. Certainly, we did see a sudden influx of patients who were concerned about their well-being rushing off to get extra scripts or purchasing additional medicines.

“Then, of course, we closed borders and stopped passenger planes. We realised a lot of medicines are transported into Australia on passenger planes, not on traditional cargo and freight planes. We are very fortunate that the medicines manufacturers keep three to six months’ supply of their medicines in the country creating enough time to work out how to secure the additional supply,” she added.

A/Professor Paul Griffin, Director Infectious Diseases, Mater Hospital, University of Queensland discussed how their vaccine trials were up and running as quickly as possible and with particular focus on the safety of volunteers and university staff. On average, the first three trials they initiated – from regulatory submissions to first patient first dose – came together in approximately 45 days instead of months.

A/Professor Blyth reflected on the Australian pandemic response. “As far as our industry goes, this has been a unique type of collaboration and a stepping-stone as far as vaccine development. That really strengthens our vaccine industry and importantly has flow on effects to the non-vaccine pharmaceutical industry. It has also brought industry and health professionals closer together in times of crisis and for the next decade or two of collaboration.”

The pharmaceutical industry has taken a leading role in supporting Australian healthcare through the pandemic.

Elizabeth de Somer, CEO, Medicines Australia said “It has been an extraordinary effort. The industry supports the healthcare professionals’ quality use medicines. When the country shut down and everybody had to stay at home, the medical affairs teams who would normally go out and educate medical professionals weren’t able to do so. Conferences and meetings weren’t able to take place. There was a greater burden on the medical affairs professionals to talk to their networks, to ensure that they were still receiving the information they needed about medicines and diagnostics so that they could continue to deliver care to their patients.

“The industry took a three-pronged approach. The first was making sure the supply of medicines was still available. The second was science – ensuring that we continued to collaborate on the research and development and the data sharing so that diagnostics, treatments and vaccines could be made available. And the third was responsibility. Being responsible not only for providing healthcare to our community, but also to the industry employees, in creating a connected remote working environment during isolation,” she added.

Ms de Somer also shared how Medicines Australia joined forces with Pathology Awareness Australia and 35 other healthcare organisations to form the Continuity of Care Collaboration (CCC) and bring focus to the continuity of medical care during the pandemic. The group formed amid mounting concerns that Australians were not maintaining their regular doctor visits for existing chronic conditions and/or putting off seeing their doctor to get a test, investigation or immunisation due to fears of contracting COVID-19 or burdening the health system.

Jane Cook, Head of Medicines Regulation Division, TGA discussed the changes at the TGA that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. “We became quite flexible and adaptable to how we could support industry during this time. We also put in place ways of ensuring that we were able to expedite COVID related applications.”

Ms Cook noted that as a result of the pandemic, there will be changes to the way that products are going to be delivered through personalised devices and personalised medicines. Part of the challenge she discussed is the changing community expectations on the level of information about products, how it affects consumers and a greater expectation from consumers on responsiveness to concerns regarding medicines.

According to Ms de Somer, long lasting changes to the pharmaceutical industry after the adaptations made during COVID will include the application of hybrid meetings and conferences – face to face / virtual – and examining ways to speed up clinical development including harnessing parallel drug and vaccine development.

Additionally, there may be changes in the roles of sales professionals versus medical affairs professionals and the way they work as a result of the COVID disruption. Perhaps sales representatives will adopt new ways of engaging with healthcare professionals which will be improved over the coming months and years. There may be a greater focus on the medical affairs professionals delivering more of the education to healthcare professionals.

“I’d like to think that there is enough economic growth for both sides of this part of the industry so that both can be sustained. I hope that we will actually see more engagement and not less,” said Ms de Somer.

With regards to industry engagement with governments, academia and researchers A/Professor Blyth said “We need to be clear what we’re trying to achieve collaboratively in delivering healthcare. We need to continue to talk to that message and the real benefits of engagement and collaboration. I think it is truly a wonderful thing.”

Lastly, there is vast potential with technology to further enhance patient access to clinical trials and novel medicines in this post COVID era.

“There is an enormous opportunity with technology. We have seen devices being approved for therapeutic use and the use of technology in tele-trials and telehealth. Technology is what has enabled vaccines to be developed so rapidly and so successfully.

“The challenge will be when there is the hybrid of products that are medicines-devices-services and technologies, and how we make those available when we’re crossing state boundaries, when we’re crossing clinics and hospitals, and other environments,” concluded Ms de Somer.

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