Pfizer takes the ax to US sales reps amid virtual push

Albert Bourla incoming Pfizer CEO
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., talked up the use of digital ahead of field forces at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference this week. (Pfizer)

Pfizer is culling hundreds of sales reps in the U.S. as the company shifts into digital drive amid a pandemic veering away in-person meetings.

Pfizer and partner BioNTech are set to make around $40 billion in COVID vaccines sales for the year and more in 2022, with new antiviral Paxlovid also set to help bring in yet more billions in the future.

But while flush with cash, this doesn’t mean the New York-based Big Pharma will be spending money where it isn’t needed.

Pfizer said in a statement to Fierce Pharma Marketing: “We are evolving into a more focused and innovative biopharma company, and evolving the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world.

“There will be some changes to our workforce to ensure we have the right expertise and resources in place to meet our evolving needs,” which includes the move to digital and away from sales reps in the field. The story was first covered by Reuters.

Fierce Pharma Marketing understands that Pfizer is eliminating a few hundred sales positions, though it is adding about half that number of positions back into the company in new areas to help facilitate the kinds of engagement HCPs are telling the company they want more of in the future.

RELATED: Pfizer's peak COVID sales now pegged at $50B-plus, with vaccine still hauling in $25B by 2027: analysts

This comes in the same week that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., spoke at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference 2022 about the company's move to virtual. “Part of our development efforts in COVID were very successful because of the digitization that we’ve had in our operation and that also will continue play,” he said.

He added that the go-to-market approach is “very different” given the way the company and doctors can access information about the medicines “through the digital route rather than through field forces,” which is the way it used to control that information.

Pfizer is not alone in culling sales reps; a year ago, Amgen also swung the ax, culling 500 U.S. jobs, the majority of which were also sales reps, and, again, this bloodletting came as a result of the pandemic pushing their roles into a more virtual platform.

But there have been some warning signs from healthcare surveys, notably from Accenture and Indegene, that the drive to digital is leading to doctors becoming "overwhelmed, spammed and fatigued" by pharma marketers pushing drug promotions and failing to tailor information as needed.

The survey from Indegene noted that pharma needed to get serious about training "digitally savvy reps" in this new age and not simply "spam" healthcare professionals.