JPM: Established relationships were key to pandemic drug launches, Incyte CEO says

woman on laptop
Incyte's sales team had built up relationships with doctors that helped with two cancer drug launches last year, CEO Hervé Hoppenot said. (iBrave/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

COVID-19 lockdowns last year brought challenges for companies in nearly every industry—including pharmaceutical companies trying to get the word out about new drugs. But for companies with established connections, technology served as a suitable temporary substitute to in-person meetings, Incyte CEO Hervé Hoppenot said in an interview. 

After Incyte's original FDA approval for Jakafi in 2011, the company has built up its network of experienced sales reps with connections to doctors and cancer centers. Those connections proved critical during the lockdowns as the company needed to share information about two new cancer drug approvals, Hoppenot said.  

RELATED: How to launch a drug in a pandemic? Here's how 4 drugmakers are using digital tools and fast footwork to do just that 

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With their prior connections, Incyte’s sales reps were able to call doctors to share “very complicated” information about the new drugs, indications, dosing and how to identify patients. Doctors “would pick up the phone” and were willing to jump on a Zoom meeting to learn more, he said. Those conversations played an important role during the launches for Pemazyre and Monjuvi, both new cancer meds approved in 2020, Hoppenot said. 

For companies without the relationships—or if a sales rep was “coming from the moon” to try and reach a doctor—that's "quite a bit more challenging," Hoppenot said. 

Still, virtual communications aren't the same as visiting a cancer center with a team and meeting everyone involved in a patient's treatment. At some centers, around 15 people—such as nurses and pharmacists—help with cancer care, and it takes a detailed effort to communicate changes in practices, he said. Doing that remotely is “not good.” 

RELATED: Incyte's faithful Jakafi—and its sales force—are ready to roll with new indication  

Another part of what the company aims to do is “make sure patients realize it’s more unsafe to not be treated than to go to the cancer center," Hoppenot said.

During coronavirus lockdowns, Medicare billing for cancer patients dropped sharply, which Hoppenot called a "sad story." Many patients haven’t received cancer treatment because of the pandemic, he said. Some missed diagnoses, while others missed treatments.

Pharma companies of various sizes have set out with new drug launches during the pandemic, while some have delayed drug rollouts. The FDA approved 53 new molecular entities last year, meaning companies had to adapt to get out the word about their new medicines. Drugmakers quickly embraced digital marketing efforts and virtual communications, and Fierce Pharma Marketing predicts the trends will continue into 2021 and beyond.