JPM: Lilly, Moderna, insitro CEOs say pandemic forced R&D, marketing and ops changes worth keeping

A prime example of the pandemic's complete overhaul of biopharma's work life is the first-ever virtual format of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. But there are plenty of others—and biopharma CEOs are saying this week that the industry will adopt some of those changes for good. 

As COVID-19 forced lockdowns, social distancing and other restrictions, pharma companies had to take drastic steps to keep their operations running. Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks on Tuesday listed those his company will make "permanent."

For one: virtual clinical trials featuring remote monitoring and digital interactions with trial sites, Ricks said. Drugmakers large and small saw trials disrupted last year, but Ricks said he was surprised at the effectiveness of the changes his company made to cope with pandemic restrictions. 

Even for big primary care studies with hundreds of sites, Eli Lilly learned how to conduct its clinical research virtually. Enrollment with digital support was faster than expected, he said, and patient dropout rates were lower than expected. 

Now, Ricks thinks the company can do similar research “with a lighter touch” than before COVID-19. 

It's a stance echoed by insitro founder and CEO Daphne Koller. During a Fierce JPM Week interview, Koller said the industry's embrace of digital technology to keep research and business moving could be a long-term fixture. The massive amounts of data generated in virtual trials could even help speed up research, she pointed out.

Aside from research, the pandemic disrupted “how we go to market,” the Eli Lilly helmsman said, and the company's workarounds might help reach new doctors. Some physicians never meet face-to-face with sales reps, he pointed out, and Lilly's virtual communications during the pandemic will provide a template for communicating with those doctors.

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CEOs across the industry have been weighing the lessons learned from working differently during the pandemic. In a Fierce JPM Week interview, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said business travel will be different post-pandemic, and that his company will be looking closely at how to leverage talent regardless of geography. 

While in the past Moderna didn't hire certain people because of “relocation challenges,” Bancel said, the pandemic showed how effective remote work can be. The CEO hasn’t personally met some key new hires at Moderna who are involved in the company's COVID-19 vaccine program, he said. 

Likewise, Vir Biotechnology will look at "modifications" to its hiring practices and consider remote workers for certain roles going forward, CEO George Scangos said during a separate interview.  

RELATED: Fierce JPM Week: Genentech CEO says partnerships, speedier trials among pandemic's 'silver linings'

Viela Bio, a small drugmaker with one marketed product, has grown used to remote work, too, CEO Bing Yao said in an interview. The “digital format works quite well,” he said.

Aside from missing face-to-face interactions at JPM, he said the virtual conference format is convenient because you “don’t have to travel” and don’t have to “run between meetings.”

While the pandemic brought lessons to biopharma CEOs, Genentech boss Alexander Hardy said it also brought “silver linings.” Those include a new willingness by drug companies to partner up to accelerate research, and an understanding about how companies can quickly conduct studies in underserved populations

In an Actemra study against the novel coronavirus, for instance, 85% of participants were from underserved communities, he said. The study was still the "fastest-executed study in the history of Genentech."