Guest Column | December 17, 2020

Unconventional But True Leadership May Be What Will Ultimately Solve The Pandemic

By Morten Nielsen

Morten Nielsen
Morten Nielsen

The pharmaceutical industry has completed the impossible – making safe and effective coronavirus vaccines in under a year when it took decades of research and trial and error to develop effective inoculations for the flu, polio and other diseases.

While there is a lot to applaud, the hard work is not over. Magnificent challenges still lie ahead in distributing the vaccines as they are approved and, even more so, fighting the tide of anti-vaccination sentiment in the U.S. and abroad.

A recent Gallup survey suggests that only 58% of Americans would willingly get a COVID-19 vaccine. A Pew study puts that number at 60%. But the problem is, what role can vaccine manufacturers really play in increasing vaccination rates and adoption?  Life sciences executives realize they’re in an interesting position in which they’re helping the world out of a real bind and, in doing so, may profit handsomely. For this reason, pharma leadership runs the risk of appearing as though they’re acting out of self-interest, causing a backlash in the adoption of the vaccine.

These leaders need to deftly negotiate this dynamic in the same manner in which they developed the vaccine – by thinking outside the box to clearly demonstrate to the public that the new vaccines are safe and effective and have little to do with who is first or who profits the most.

This also means that the responsibility for vaccination adoption cannot fall solely on pharmaceutical manufacturers. Public health experts of the CDC, WHO, etc., need to work with pharma executives to ensure that these efforts are supported and disseminated by industry and government spokespeople for the good of the overall community.

Public service announcements will be critical. If consumers are unable to trust government and regulatory authorities, then there must be clear, persuasive messaging from all of the individuals who developed the vaccines, the research behind them and the mechanisms by which they are delivered to the world, all in a coordinated effort.

Together, they need to do the impossible again to help drive vaccine adoption through every possible avenue – well beyond efforts they have made for other products. A few ways to get it done:

  • Explore and leverage all no-fault insurance mechanisms to ensure that the risk of manufacturing liability will not prevent the fair and equitable distribution of the vaccines worldwide. This includes supporting the global COVAX Facility risk-sharing mechanism.
  • Cooperate with President-elect Biden's COVID-19 advisory board in the U.S. and similar bodies across the world. Where are the supply chain bottlenecks? Are full-scale vaccine production processes working efficiently? Are there enough needles and syringes? Vaccine manufacturers will need to be forthcoming and transparent about any issues.
  • Rethink relationships with hospitals and healthcare providers. In particular, how can developers and providers work together, as well as with major distributors, to combat misinformation and accelerate vaccine acceptance?
  • Prioritize reputational benefits over profits. Drug companies, which have historically struggled to engender public trust, have a rare opportunity to reset their reputations via their collective COVID efforts. The bounce in goodwill would pay long-term dividends for manufacturers.
  • Whether on their own or through PhRMA, ABPI or other industry coalitions, manufacturers' public service announcements will be critical. Here is where vaccine companies can employ their mighty marketing engines. Hire actors, celebrities and trusted public figures — former Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton are on board — to promote the vaccines. Coordinate social media campaigns among top pharma CEOs. Share videos of these CEOs getting inoculated themselves. Work with top media outlets to track vaccine adoption, a welcome relief from the daily monitoring of COVID infection and death rates.

Unusual times call for unusual leadership. It is a collective responsibility to increase adoption and acceptance of this vaccine in a way that the medical and biopharma community have not had to for other products. At least not in 100 years.

Morten Nielsen is the Global Managing Partner for the Life Sciences Practice at the executive search firm WittKieffer. He also serves as a Senior Partner of WittKieffer and is the Board Chair of the AESC (Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants).