A catastrophic start to the 2020s has triggered a permanent redrawing of the pharma and healthcare landscape. Not surprisingly, most attention has been focused on the sector’s race to vaccinate the world before COVID-19 variants inflict too much more damage. But another seismic shift in the pharma business has been a rapid evolution in the use of digital technology.

This point was highlighted in a recent survey by GlobalData which found that 35% of pharmaceutical industry professionals believe COVID-19 sped up digital transformation in the pharma industry by more than five years.

From the rapid rollout of telehealth to an increased use of AI in drug development and distribution, tech is now influencing strategy at every tier of the pharma ecosystem.

Whether it’s decentralised clinical trials, digital therapeutics, or remote sales and marketing processes, changes that may have taken years to introduce have been driven through in weeks or months.

While the speed of this course correction is impressive, many pharma companies are inadequately prepared for such a rapid transition. Becoming a digitally-powered enterprise requires a series of cultural and organisational modifications that most businesses haven’t yet got to grips with. Companies that want to ensure this pandemic-inspired surge towards tech is sustainable in the long term should embrace the following action points:

1. Champion agility

Coronavirus has reinforced the thesis that agile businesses are better equipped to navigate unpredictable tech currents. Novartis' chief executive officer Vas Narasimhan made this point in a recent Wired interview, when he highlighted how investments in data science and predictive machine learning had enabled Novartis to respond flexibly to the challenges presented by COVID-19. Clinical trials, manufacturing operations and relations with patients and physicians all came through relatively unscathed thanks to strategic tech investment. It’s worth noting that several successful drug launches took place in 2020 despite the COVID-19 crisis – mainly as a result of smart digital pivots. McKinsey’s analysis of drug launches during COVID-19 also highlighted the importance of analytics, personalisation and nimble frontline operations.

2. Value and involve your ops teams

It’s all too easy within big companies to take the 24/7 frontline teams – or Ops as they are known –  who run digital platforms for granted; and yet these are the people who get called when websites crash unexpectedly in the middle of the night. This can mean ops teams resist frequent upgrades or releases which threaten website availability. A key way to combat this is to create a culture of investment in the operational team as they transition to continuous processes, with the aim of reducing the impact and therefore risk of large scale irregular deployments.

One of the big winners during the pandemic has been Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna, which emerged to be one of the industry’s leading vaccine providers. The company made a total commitment to the digitisation of engineering processes in 2015, becoming the “first truly digital biotech company”. This approach, together with its enthusiasm for AI, allowed it to leapfrog the competition in the race to develop an effective COVID vaccine.

3. Expect success and prepare to scale

Despite the disruption and damage caused to many sectors by COVID-19, the pandemic has actually created a business boost for some pharma brands. Vaccine leaders like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna have been obvious beneficiaries, but there have been some less high-profile winners too. For example, Doxy.me, a leading telemedicine platform for healthcare providers, saw its monthly website visits leap from over 250,000 in February 2020 to a peak of 23.2 million visits in April 2020.

Scaling up does, however, bring challenges. In the case of vaccine firms, this is primarily framed in terms of the manufacturing challenge – how to get all the elements of physical production aligned to drive rapid rollout and minimise disruption. But as companies like Pfizer have made clear, there is also a critical digital component to developing, producing and distributing at scale.

Companies that are coping best with the complexities of the COVID-19 challenge are those that have been built or organised with digital scalability in mind. When developing digital products and services, it’s hard to think past the go-live launch phase. But businesses need to consider how the organisational structure needs to adapt in parallel with digital change to ensure that people are adequately trained, managed and supported to ensure the business can scale in line with the increasing level of change.

4. Switch to continuous iteration and deployment

In the digital first economy, change is the new constant. Yet change is no longer a big dramatic leap forward: rather, successful digital strategies tend to hinge on hundreds of small frequent releases. Despite comfortably holding its position as the world’s top ecommerce company, Amazon is constantly exploring new market opportunities presented by tech. These include its new online delivery service Amazon Pharmacy, which promises to give consumers access to secure affordable medication more quickly than traditional channels. Key to Amazon’s success is its relentless focus on new digital products and integration. As part of this, the e-commerce giant executes an ever increasing number of releases – numbering thousands a day. Amazon is not alone: Netflix, Google and Facebook all adopt a similar approach.

Pharma brands may not be able to emulate Amazon, but they need to adopt the same culture to thrive in this new digital ecosystem, accelerated by COVID-19. Moderna, for example, has embraced digital tech as part of its drug creation process. Every employee receives an iPad and laptop when they join the firm. If scientists have an idea on a new drug anywhere, anytime, they can instantly start designing it and creating multiple versions.

Final Thought

COVID-19 has encouraged unprecedented levels of collaboration between pharma companies as they seek to combat the risk that the disease presents to humanity. This activity is presented as philanthropic, but the reality in today’s hyper-connected digital age is that collaboration and partnerships are also often the key to commercial success. Johnson & Johnson, for example, is currently supporting more than 100 strategic partnerships, collaborations and equity investments while Moderna is working with IBM to explore how AI, blockchain and hybrid cloud can support COVID-19 vaccine management.

It doesn’t end there. Roche recently joined forces with Italian startup PatchAi to launch a digital solution for patients affected by oncological diseases, while AstraZeneca is working with Alchemab on prostate cancer solutions. Bayer claims to have placed open innovation at the heart of its strategy. In practical terms, these collaborations mean pharma companies will need digital architectures that facilitate a seamless dialogue between businesses – as well as internally – to thrive in the Post-COVID world.

Andrew Dunbar is EMEA general manager of digital consultancy Appnovation