AbbVie, GSK, Sanofi and more limit employee travel as coronavirus threatens business

When the novel coronavirus first broke in China, biopharma companies’ local operations limited their marketing activities. Now, as fears rise over the disease’s spread, drugmakers are implementing travel restrictions outside the country, too.

While most companies around the world are monitoring the development of COVID-19, pharma majors AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Mylan, Novartis, Sanofi and more have either outright prohibited travel to and from China or advised their employees to reschedule business meetings in affected areas.

GSK, for one, is restricting non-essential travel to Italy and Korea with “immediate effect,” a spokesman said. Several firms are following guidelines by the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now asks people to avoid travel to China and South Korea unless absolutely necessary. Iran, Italy and Japan are also on the agency’s alert list. 

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Since at least early February, AstraZeneca has restricted all non-business-critical travel to and from China, including Hong Kong. With about 20% of its sales coming from—and 17,000 employees stationed in—the country, AZ’s the most vulnerable among its Big Pharma peers to business disruptions in China.

British compatriot GSK’s been asking employees to postpone non-essential business travel to and from China until the end of March. And it’s just extended these restrictions to cover Italy and Korea, which are seeing a sharp rise in community transmission cases.

Earlier this month, Mylan updated its global travel policy to “prohibit travel to and from China until further notice,” a company spokesperson told FiercePharma.

“Our business exposure in China, specifically, is limited. However, given the global nature of our supply chain, operations and businesses, our results could potentially be impacted,” Mylan’s outgoing CEO Heather Bresch said on a conference call Thursday.

The generic drugmaker is in the process of folding in Pfizer’s China-headquartered established medicines unit, Upjohn. While the Mylan we know now has little presence in China, the Upjohn merger agreement was done in large part to expand into the rapidly growing market.

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Sanofi, another leading multinational in China, has created an internal crisis committee to provide support to employees and ensure business continuity. In China, the company’s advising its employees to work from home and distributed masks to them as advised by local authorities to reduce risks of contagion.

“At a global level, all events in China must be postponed and all travel to and from China is strictly not recommended,” a Sanofi spokesperson said in a statement.

Novartis has established a dedicated task force to monitor the situation, as well as protection and travel guidance for its associates, a company spokesperson told FiercePharma. The Swiss pharma has big plans for China as laid out by CEO Vas Narasimhan, aiming to double its sales there by 2024.

In its fourth-quarter report, Novartis started reporting China sales separately. During those three months, the country contributed $544 million to the company’s top line, up 21% at constant currencies.

Johnson & Johnson is also promoting the option to telework and to switch to virtual meetings. Boehringer’s asking its employees to “reschedule business meetings that require traveling or organize them virtually in those areas,” it said in a statement. U.S. firms AbbVie and Bristol-Myers Squibb have both put in place temporary travel restrictions on virus-hit regions.

So far, several pharma bigwigs have said they weren't currently facing drug shortages or major disruptions to their supply chains but warned of the possibility should the virus continue to spread.

“While we do not see an impact on the integrity of our global supply chain at this time, Teva will continue to assess and protect this and all areas of our business,” leading U.S. generics supplier Teva said in a statement to FiercePharma.

Pfizer, in its recent regulatory filing, said the outbreak could adversely impact its manufacturing, supply chain and clinical trial operations, adding that the extent will depend on future developments, which remain volatile.

Due to the uncertainty over the COVID-19 outbreak, which according to health experts has the potential to evolve into a global pandemic, pharma companies said they will provide updates in their first-quarter earnings reports.

Editor's note: Kyle Blankenship and Eric Sagonowsky contributed reporting.