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Coronavirus forces pharma industry to cut back clinical trials, in-person sales

Like many global companies during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the biopharmaceutical industry is cutting back or halting some operations such as sales and clinical trials to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Companies like Amarin Corporation PLC, Amgen Inc. and Pfizer Inc. have suspended face-to-face marketing interactions and turned instead to virtual interactions as employees work from home.

Product launches are also being delayed due to scaled-back marketing campaigns and a decrease in patient-physician interactions. Executives from Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for peanut allergy treatment Palforzia in January, said on a March 16 investor call that the launch may slow in the near-term, but sales are currently on track due to remote appointments.

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Remote working has become a widespread prevention measure where possible, according to representatives from several of the largest pharmaceutical companies. Some operations, however, require in-person tasks. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, said critical research and development and manufacturing facilities remain open while employees who can work from home do so.

SNL Image

The coronavirus, pictured above, has forced the pharmaceutical industry to make changes to sales and R&D operations.

Source: NIAID-RML

A representative from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. told S&P Global Market Intelligence that the company was restricting all nonessential business travel and prohibiting attendance at conferences. Although Vertex requested that employees worldwide work remotely, those who require access to facilities will continue to work on-site.

Many medical conferences and other business meetings have already been canceled. U.S. pharmaceutical pricing watchdog the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review postponed public meetings to discuss the findings of several pending reports on March 18.

Despite the rapid change in protocol, the pharmaceutical industry is expected to remain a relative "safe haven" as other industries and the U.S. economy at large are battered by impacts from the virus, according to a note from Morgan Stanley analyst David Risinger.

"Coronavirus-related issues may affect financial results, clinical trial execution, FDA action, political scrutiny and relative performance," Risinger said. "Crosscurrents in revenues and costs make it difficult to predict net effects, but we currently expect modest 2020 impacts."

Clinical trials take a hit

Many pharmaceutical companies have begun to pause clinical trials to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. This includes Pfizer Inc., which put a hold on screening for early-stage studies at facilities in New Haven, Conn., and Brussels, according to a company spokesperson.

Provention Bio Inc. on March 16 paused enrollment for a late-stage trial for diabetes treatment teplizumab. Other companies ceasing at least some trial activity include RNA-drug specialist Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals Inc., as well as New York's IVERIC bio Inc. and Switzerland's Addex Therapeutics Ltd. A representative from Amgen could not rule out future impacts on sales, manufacturing and clinical trials for the company.

"There's plenty of evidence that a serious slowdown in clinical trials is in the works," Evercore analyst Umer Raffat said in a March 17 note. "This can have widespread ramifications for [the] biopharma industry, either from readout delays or from more 'missing data' in ongoing trials."

In a survey cited by Raffat, about 30% of clinical trial sites believe the pandemic will have a "big or extremely big" impact on the ability to recruit patients and to keep enrolled patients fully compliant.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance on March 18 to advise companies, trial investigators and review boards as to the changes that might be required to maintain health and safety in clinical trials while also keeping the studies valid.