Articles You May Have Missed

Pharma Fights the Virus: Culture, Collaboration, and Transparency into Innovation

On April 7 of this year, it was finally my turn to become one of the millions of Americans to receive their COVID-19 vaccine. After becoming eligible, I scoured websites for appointments, watching several disappear from my digital grasp before finally securing a Pfizer jab at a county drive-through site. When the vaccine was administered through the window of my car, I felt flooded with relief.

As has now become clear, my enthusiasm was not universal. Although epidemiologists agree that universal vaccination is the surest way out of the pandemic, millions of people around the world are “vaccine hesitant” to some degree. Some question vaccines in general, believing (based on no peer-reviewed science) that their harms or side effects are underreported. Others doubt that “new” technologies, deployed this quickly, could be fully safe, or believe that companies or regulators must have “cut corners.” These feelings were sharply amplified by the anxiety of the pandemic and a chaotic political and media environment.

Scientists from Moderna in the lab

In recent months, the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus has caused cases to surge once again, largely among the unvaccinated. Even with lower mortality thanks to new treatments, every new infection risks more than just immediate sickness—the disease’s long-term impacts will only become clear with time.

By now, hundreds of millions of people have received vaccinations, and no evidence has been published of widespread long-term side effects, which typically become apparent within months of receiving a vaccine. The Delta wave has prompted a spike in hospitalizations, but antibody treatments combined with other drugs appear to be reducing mortality compared to past waves before treatments existed. After months of declines, vaccination rates have been ticking up again in response, and Pfizer’s vaccine received full FDA approval for adults on August 23. Moderna has just submitted its own final application.

Even so, should we be more cautious before rolling up our sleeves? In a field known for decades-long development timelines, all of the new pharmaceuticals deployed to battle the pandemic—whether the groundbreaking mRNA vaccines, more conventional jabs, or even the antibody cocktails that help combat active COVID-19 infections—went from first trials to public rollout in record time. The US government’s response was aptly codenamed: progress seemingly came at warp speed.

China released the first sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genome on January 11, 2020, sounding the starter pistol for a worldwide research, development, and logistics effort. Seemingly the entire planet, eager for hope, closely followed the twists and turns of the global pharma industry’s work. Most early-stage research trials are low-pressure, low-attention affairs; now, any tentative result became international breaking news.

To get from a spike protein structure on a researcher’s blackboard to a shot going into my arm at a refurbished dockyard was no easy feat. How did the companies involved navigate the gauntlet of scientific, regulatory, and communications hurdles? How, in an industry more tightly regulated than almost any in the world, did they manage to move so quickly without “cutting corners?” What new collaborations were necessary, both within and across organizations? How did they adapt to the pressure of public scrutiny, maintain unprecedented transparency, and ensure that the public would have every reason to trust the final product? And how will the pandemic change their companies and the industry going forward?

The answer to many of these questions can be found in the cultures at the companies behind these breakthroughs. To find out more, Ethisphere Magazine got in touch with some of the leaders most responsible for stewarding these cultures, the chief ethics and compliance executives at Pfizer, Moderna, and Regeneron. Even considering the knowledge advantages and lucky breaks these companies may have had, talking with these executives made it clear that success wouldn’t have been possible if these organizations hadn’t prioritized ethics, collaboration, and transparency before and throughout the pandemic.

Rady Johnson looks smiling to camera.
Rady Johnson, Chief Compliance, Quality and Risk Officer, EVP, Pfizer

The Calm Before

In retrospect, it’s difficult to think about December 2019 without some unease, knowing that the coronavirus was already spreading in China. “I was actually in China on business in December of 2019, and there was no discussion at all of COVID-19 going on,” says Rady Johnson, Chief Compliance, Quality, and Risk Officer for Pfizer. The first reports of an “unexplained pneumonia” in Wuhan wouldn’t appear until December 30. Even a few weeks later at the Pfizer’s annual Executive Committee meeting, the virus wasn’t yet a topic of major discussion.

But by early spring, with the virus now circulating in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, it became clear that COVID-19 was going to become a global problem and not burn out the way that previous near-miss pandemics such as SARS or MERS had. The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. At that point, every company in the industry looked at their own catalog of drugs already approved or in development, and tried to decide how best to help.

Many turned to drugs that were already on the market to treat other conditions, hoping that some might also prove effective at combatting this new threat. But three companies were uniquely positioned to harness years of biotechnical innovation against viruses: Regeneron had developed antiviral monoclonal antibody cocktails, and both Moderna and a Pfizer-BioNTech partnership had the groundwork for mRNA vaccines.

‘Miracles’ Built on Decades of Investment

A pair of tweets from Daniels Summers, MD on June 22, 2021.

Some health professionals have lamented the way that the reporting on the scientific response to the virus focused too much on the apparent “miracle” of the new technologies. On the one hand, this crisis was the first time that mRNA vaccines have been deployed, and antiviral monoclonal antibodies are relatively new as well. On the other hand, the widespread impression that these therapies were developed rapidly has contributed to some people’s concerns that that they are either untested or poorly understood. Neither is the case.

While new to the general public, the research underpinning both antiviral antibodies and mRNA vaccines has been going on for decades. In both cases, the innovations that allowed for such seemingly rapid progress were built on years, and sometimes decades, of investment in research in both public and the private sectors.

In the case of REGEN-COV, the monoclonal antibody cocktail produced by Regeneron, the basic science is almost fifty years old, earning key researchers several Nobel Prizes along the way. Monoclonal antibodies are proteins designed to bind to a single virus, cancer cell, or other threat, mimicking those produced by white blood cells. Individual antibodies or antibody cocktails have been used to combat everything from cancers to autoimmune diseases and organ transplant rejection. Regeneron has been perfecting the technology it uses to produce its antibodies over decades against many illnesses. The first antiviral antibodies to receive full FDA approval, which significantly reduced mortality risk from Ebola in patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were also developed by Regeneron. Given that history, the success of antibody cocktails against COVID was no surprise to those who had followed the science.

Beth Holly looks smiling to camera.
Beth Holly, SVP, Associate General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Nevertheless, in normal times most patients aren’t aware of exactly what kind of technology or therapeutic they’re being treated with. As Beth Holly, SVP, Associate General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Regeneron notes, “People have been taking monoclonal antibodies for quite some time, for example for rheumatoid arthritis. The idea isn’t new, but patients have never distinguished it that way.”

While mRNA vaccines have not been in use by the public before, their history also goes back decades. The technology faced years of skepticism from the research establishment before breakthroughs funded by private sector-led innovation. The New York Times podcast “The Daily” recently exposed millions of listeners to Dr. Katalin Karikó’s valiant struggle to get her research into mRNA taken seriously, going back to the 1980s. Eventually, her work with collaborator Dr. Drew Weissman received just enough funding to reach publication in 2005. Even so, it received a tepid response from the academic community. But the private sector took notice: Karikó and Weissman’s discoveries were patented, bought, licensed, and eventually became the basis of the work done by two new companies specializing in the promise of mRNA treatments—Moderna and BioNTech, where Karikó is now Senior Vice President.

While both Moderna and BioNTech had been pursuing a viable way to bring mRNA to market for years, their efforts had only recently picked up steam; as Nature memorably reported, “five years ago, the RNA technology would not have been ready.” BioNTech’s partnership with Pfizer began in 2018 with an experimental influenza vaccine that was likely still years from market. Similarly, Moderna’s pipeline products were far enough from wide release that they hadn’t yet needed to scale up their risk and compliance controls.

It’s worth noting that in each of these cases, many other companies also had access to the same technology. Monoclonal antibodies are produced by many of Regeneron’s competitors, only a handful of whom also produced COVID treatments. Several other companies designed mRNA vaccines that have either are not showing comparable efficacy, or took much longer to clear the many phases of development. The technology alone didn’t and couldn’t ensure that Regeneron, Pfizer, and Moderna would succeed—and that’s where culture came into play.

A view of a lab where Regeneron’s antibody cocktail was researched

Luck, Bold Moves, and a Flurry of Questions

Each company needed an appetite for a certain amount of risk to push these potentially game-changing technologies. They also had to accommodate the need for collaboration and transparency that followed from these choices.

According to Rady Johnson, Pfizer’s decision to throw its weight behind developing an mRNA vaccine with BioNTech rather than using a more tried-and-true vaccine vector wasn’t actually too complicated. Given the existing partnership, “there was a little bit of luck involved,” says Johnson. Even so, “the scientists who understood its potential felt confident. It was an incredibly bold move. We weren’t sure what would happen, but it was definitely something that we felt confident about.”

Regardless of which technology went into the vaccine development, Johnson says, everyone involved knew that a proactive stance towards transparency and integrity would be vital to reassuring the public. The scientists simply advocated what they felt was the most promising technology, and the rest of the organization mobilized around them to clear the necessary barriers.

For the team at Moderna, there hadn’t been a “more conventional” option, since the entire company was built around the promise of mRNA technology. But that also meant they had another hurdle: the company was still essentially a large start-up, and while it had an open and innovative culture dedicated to transparency, they had not yet needed to build control functions.

Kristin Rand, Head of Corporate Compliance and Global Risk Officer, Moderna
Kristin Rand, Head of Corporate Compliance and Global Risk Officer, Moderna

“Before COVID, Moderna wasn’t anticipating having a commercial product for two or three years,” says Kristin Rand, the company’s first Head of Corporate Compliance and Global Risk Officer, hired at the outset of the pandemic once the company decided to pursue its own vaccine trials and prepare for possible commercial rollout. “There was a need to quickly grow a focused, dedicated risk and compliance program. In addition, it was crucial that the company’s commitment to transparency be maintained.”

For the team at Regeneron, there was never a doubt that they could develop a product with a good chance of effectively combatting a viral infection. Having been in the field developing antibodies to combat Ebola since 2014, including a very successful trial during the 2018-2019 Ebola outbreak, Regeneron was culturally and institutionally equipped to rapidly develop and test drugs in a pandemic scenario. “Our scientific leadership has been practicing for this for years. They’ve honed their research tools to be ready to handle an emerging crisis and generate a solution in record time,” says Holly.

Holly remembers the flurry of questions that emerged once it became clear they would develop a therapeutic against COVID-19. “What’s an EUA [emergency use authorization]? Can we get one? How do we get it? How do you market under it?” Although EUAs were explicitly designed to help the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide expedited review of treatments during public health emergencies, the first one had only been issued in 2009 against swine flu, and none had ever been issued for either vaccines or new drug treatments. Navigating the EUA process at the FDA would be just one of several new kinds of scrutiny.

To understand the way this transparency has paid off, look at the journey of a different drug produced by Regeneron: Kevzara, an antibody treatment that they and Sanofi had jointly developed several years ago for rheumatoid arthritis. Early scientific literature suggested the drug might be helpful for hospitalized COVID patients.

Having seen other companies elevate their own treatments with little evidence before later being undercut by poor clinical data, Regeneron’s leaders keenly understood the importance of making sure that doctors and patients around the world had accurate information, and wouldn’t be tempted to experiment on their own with off-label uses of drugs that were already on the market.

“We felt it was critically important to publish our data when we had it, whether it was good or bad,” says Holly. “We quickly undertook a clinical study. Our preliminary results did not support the hypothesis, and we were as quick to announce that as we were the positive indicators on our cocktail, because it’s just important for people to have the information in real time.” For a time, that seemed like the end of the story.

However, given the strength of the underlying scientific theory, scientists outside the company continued to study the drug, and with more data in July 2021 the WHO eventually recommended Kevzara in conjunction with steroids for reducing COVID mortality. The company’s transparent research process, and open communication during initial uncertainty, now ensures that doctors and the public trust that recommendation’s integrity.

In the summer and fall of 2020, as the “second wave” of the virus crested in the United States and much of Europe, it was impossible to miss the chatter about whether or not the companies and their regulators would undercut safety or scientific guardrails to get treatments to a desperate public.

“As we and other companies started outlining our development timelines, the phrase repeated in the media and across a number of constituencies was, ‘There’s no way they could possibly do any of this stuff without ‘cutting corners,’” remembers Johnson.

The team at Pfizer was tremendously aware of the public scrutiny, and knew that no matter how the vaccine development race panned out, that scrutiny would continue for a long time. “We knew that there would never be any program of ours that ever would have as much visibility as this would,” says Johnson. “We were going to be called upon often to assure stakeholders that we were not cutting corners, and we would probably be answering these questions for years to come.”

“In some respects, it made it easier. Just remain fully transparent, act with integrity and assume there’s going to be a spotlight on it every step of the way. That was almost liberating.” Even at a company that already had a robust culture of compliance, ethics, and quality control, the public conversation dramatically underscored the importance of doing the work the right way, the first time, with the most transparent communication possible.

Moderna’s Kristin Rand agreed. “There has definitely been a feeling that we have a duty to communicate information,” she said. The company found itself issuing press releases about developments that, for less high-profile products, would simply have gone to the FDA. “There is a feeling of responsibility to a whole world that is watching and waiting for some sort of hope. And if you’ve got some hope to give them, even a little bit, some new data, something, there is a responsibility to get it out there to the public at large.”

Rand also acknowledged that the demands for transparency in the pandemic forced her legal team to override many instincts about the risks of disclosure. “It’s a standard reaction from many in legal to ask, ‘Should we really be putting this out there?’ There is a need to take a step back to recognize that the obligation to transparency supersedes any potential risks down the road.”

Trials and Manufacturing: ‘Everything in Parallel’

So, how did these companies actually do it all so quickly?

These particular organizations possessed certain advantages that must be acknowledged up front. Pfizer had its enormous size and experience with the regulatory process as the second-largest U.S.-based pharmaceutical. Moderna had funding from Project Warp Speed and a robust partnership with the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Regeneron already had a relationship with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) from its work against Ebola and other infectious diseases. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much these institutional linkages helped accelerate their work.

But all three executives said that the major factor in expediting the trials and approval processes from years into months had nothing to do with extra access, skipped steps, or pressure on or from regulators. They simply had an unprecedented amount of focus on the pandemic-related work, which took both internal and regulatory priority. They also proceeded simultaneously with many processes that normally only happen in a predictable sequence.

For Beth Holly, cutting down the normal timelines meant a new level of closeness with many colleagues and functions across the organization. “There’s so much going on simultaneously that I think anchoring ourselves in that collaborative spirit enabled us to move as quickly as we did,” she says.

In particular, the companies began to aggressively scale their manufacturing operations months before approval was assured, ensuring that if they got the green light of an EUA, they could immediately reach patients with as much product as possible.

While all three companies eventually received advance purchase orders from the US and other governments—agreements by the government to buy a certain amount of product, if safety and effectiveness were proven—all three executives said that these contracts mostly came too late to impact decision making or truly defray risk. By the time that advance purchase orders were received in late summer, Pfizer had already been scaling up production for months, and Regeneron was shifting capacity in its factories. The companies had felt it was the only appropriate way to proceed given the clear and present public need.

“The purchase commitments that we started entering into, they didn’t really influence everything we were doing, because we did everything in parallel. The second we had identified the formulation we were going to be testing, we started scaling up our manufacturing,” says Johnson. “We—and the world—couldn’t afford the lost time.”

This order of operations is precisely what the emergency use authorization process in the United States was designed to enable: with an EUA, research and manufacturing can happen in parallel without lowering any of the medical and safety standards. Companies can begin production without guarantees that these investments will pan out, since both vaccines and treatments still cannot get final approval without convincing regulators that their benefits far outweigh any risks. For vaccines in particular, several months of post-shot safety follow-up data were still required. As is common with trials for new drugs, safety data is still being collected and reported, and any new side effects or complications can be studied.

Holly attributes Regeneron’s success in navigating the approval process with integrity, speed, and precision to the company’s collaborative culture, and to her own approach to compliance. “I’ve always viewed my role in compliance as being something of a navigator,” says Holly. “You tell us where you want to go, we’ll help you figure out how to get there. We’ll clear obstacles out of the way, reroute if we have to in order to find a solution. I think that helped achieve the kind of timelines that we saw.”

Educating the Regulators, the Doctors, and the Public—All at Once

One of the challenges facing any pharmaceutical company rolling out a new kind of treatment is that they typically have to spend years communicating the science behind a treatment to regulators, then providers, and finally to the public in order to generate trust and understanding. Under the compressed timeline of emergency development, all of that activity had to happen in tandem, and restrictions against normal marketing activity under an EUA presented additional hurdles.

“There was such a different information flow than normal,” says Holly. “You really had to be agile enough to address this on multiple fronts at the same time.”

“Normally, no one would have cared about early development stages or early data, or at least it wouldn’t have been nightly news. This time, for obvious reasons people did care,” says Johnson. “That gave us a chance to have an educational moment. All of a sudden, people were much more interested in science, in how pharmaceutical companies worked.” For example, Johnson says that the structure of phased drug trials was new information to most people with whom he spoke, and to the public at large.

At Pfizer, while ethics and quality teams have always worked closely with communications, Johnson says that the pandemic brought that collaboration to the level of daily interaction. “We brought our communications people right to the table. There couldn’t be any gap between what we said, either proactively or reactively, and the machinery of the organization. Everything that we said had to be accurate and complete.” That alliance enabled the communications team to funnel concerns from the public and the media quickly to Johnson’s team.

Another aspect of the communications balance for the vaccine makers was that they knew that they had to present a united front to the public. “The best vaccine is the one you can get” has been a common refrain from public health officials. “We sought to not make it about our product versus another,” says Moderna’s Kristen Rand. “Our belief has always been that we need all the effective vaccines we can get. We were always rooting for the other companies. It’s about getting people to want to be vaccinated regardless of what vaccine they’re getting.”

Combatting vaccine hesitancy was also top-of-mind for the vaccine makers, even before any were fully approved. Any lapses in transparency early in the process could undermine public trust down the road. “It didn’t matter if we had a vaccine if no one was going to take it, and that’s an issue we had to confront sooner rather than later,” says Johnson. “That wasn’t going to work without public trust, so full transparency was critical.”

Kristen Rand agreed. “There will be people who are concerned or apprehensive,” she says. “If it looks like you’re hiding anything, that can only increase the anxiety and fear. Therefore, it is essential that we be forward, open, and transparent about everything, including about what we didn’t know at any point in time.”

When Regeneron released its REGEN-COV cocktail, communication was the key to overcoming the lack of public awareness about the new therapeutic. Even after several high-profile political figures received antibody treatments (President Trump among the most prominent), both physicians and the public had to learn who would benefit most from the cocktail, and that it was soon widely available for free thanks to the government.

‘Keeping the Normal Trains on the Tracks’

Of course, despite the worldwide scramble to combat COVID-19, none of these companies were only focused on their work to beat the pandemic. Like everyone else, each still had other projects to keep moving in a socially distanced, capacity-constrained, and rapidly changing world.

As a company already primed for quick responses to infectious outbreaks, Regeneron began to develop a therapy candidate even before lockdowns. “For us, both things were happening simultaneously as soon as our research scientists heard about this emerging coronavirus in Wuhan,” said Holly on a panel at the Global Ethics Summit this spring. “We had been preparing for this.”

However, being well-equipped for a fast research response didn’t make the transition to social distancing any simpler. “How do we keep everything else moving as it should? It surprises me in retrospect how many different aspects of my own organization were impacted,” remembers Holly. “We have clinical trials running around the world—how do we keep those programs moving? How do you monitor sites when you can’t visit them? Every aspect of our business had to adapt.

“From a compliance standpoint, as soon as we pulled our field representatives—how do we enable virtual interactions anchored in our policies, but with nuances that we hadn’t anticipated? How do we make sure that physicians were still getting the education that they needed about our products? It was a multidisciplinary, collaborative effort to keep all of our critical business functions operating.”

Of the three organizations, Pfizer is by far the largest, and so had the most non-COVID drugs also in development. For that reason, as lockdowns loomed the company’s most immediate concern wasn’t their vaccine, as Johnson discussed on the same Global Ethics Summit panel.

“The focus in the beginning was all about how to keep our normal operations going. The organization was all about keeping the normal trains on the tracks. We were fortunate that our digital systems worked as well as they did, and how remarkably we shifted into running normally.”

Given Moderna’s comparatively smaller size and lack of other mature products, for them the challenges of keeping up with “normal” business during the last year were mostly organizational. Most importantly, the company had to scale headcount at a breakneck pace while also spinning up new control processes—and maintaining the start-up’s culture and commitment to integrity along the way.

As Rand described it, “It has been rapid expansion. To ensure a culture of integrity is maintained, we embed the value from the start, conveying our commitment to doing things the right way within the new hire onboarding, explaining those dynamics, and always taking it back to the company’s values: being bold, relentless, curious, and collaborative.”

Will More Understanding Mean More Goodwill?

Survey data has shown that the pharmaceutical industry’s rapid innovations in response to the pandemic prompted a significant surge in public opinion towards the sector as a whole. By April, social media users were identifying as #TeamPfizer, #TeamModerna or #TeamJ&J, facetiously arguing that their group was more intelligent, funny, or attractive. This phenomenon, and the general conversation about how “science won,” has placed an extraordinary positive spotlight on the industry.

Johnson, Holly, and Rand all acknowledge the potential upside their companies and the industry could glean from this success. However, they see challenges ahead for pharmaceutical companies to maintain this level of public support and understanding.

“We have a clear objective to do just that,” says Johnson, “but I think it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be important for the entire industry. Unfortunately, it’s not good enough for some of us to be trustworthy companies. We have an industry-wide, weakest-link-in-the-chain problem when it comes to reputation.”

Reputation-tracking firm Caliber calls the dynamic Johnson is describing the industry’s “lack of differentiation” among consumers. By and large, most people don’t know what company made—or in the case of generics, originally researched and patented—the drugs or other treatments that they take. That means that the industry’s breakthroughs are rarely attached to a specific brand.

When the pandemic was first officially declared on March 11, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla released a statement outlining five principles for Pfizer’s pandemic response, and calling on others to support them as well. Together, they were a pledge to support other companies’ efforts to help the world meet the challenge presented by the pandemic. The company committed to open-source research and development practices. Early in the pandemic, many companies followed their lead, greatly facilitating knowledge sharing, particularly with pre-trial drugs.

Pfizer also offered its excess manufacturing capacity to any company that needed it. That offer would later be taken up by Gilead in August, when Pfizer began to produce their drug remdesivir, the broad-spectrum antiviral that was approved to reduce mortality for COVID patients.

BioNTech’s pre-existing partnership with Pfizer made their joint development of an mRNA vaccine a natural choice. The smaller company’s technical knowledge paired with Pfizer’s unmatched scale and ability to navigate the logistics required for trials, manufacturing, government approvals, and public relations. However, the partnership required navigating a nearly hundredfold difference in headcount between the two companies. While their prior flu vaccine research had not been nearly as extensive, expensive, or scrutinized, it meant that both companies’ scientific experts were comfortable with each other, and that they had already established a shared commitment to a culture of integrity.

Even so, it was important for Rady Johnson that his team had a chance to reaffirm its due diligence and leverage usual structures and controls like compliance and quality risk management committees to solidify the transparency between the two organizations. Once that work was done, the collaboration could race ahead.

That spirit of collaboration largely took hold across the industry. As a company that had never released a commercial product before, Moderna still had to rapidly scale manufacturing. To meet demand, the company eventually partnered with a number of larger manufacturers, including Catalent and Lonza, even as it scaled up its own factories. Meanwhile, its pre-existing relationship with BARDA helped it to navigate some of the new and challenging regulatory hurdles “It’s a situation where it must be recognized that as a rapidly growing new commercial organization, we can’t do everything on our own right now,” says Kristin Rand of those partnerships. “The big companies have in-house capabilities, but we are still growing and right now need to rely more on third parties. It definitely adds to the risk profile, but on the other hand, we have our diligence screening processes to assess risk on the front end and our auditing and monitoring functions to manage risk throughout the engagement.”

Regeneron also found a partner, Roche, to expand manufacturing and support international distribution for its antibodies. Under normal circumstances, Roche manufactures competing treatments, but as Beth Holly put it, “When there’s a greater call, as there is here in a global pandemic, collaborating with people who might be your competitors in another space is the name of the game. It’s what we need to do to make sure we’re serving public health.”

On the flip side, when malfeasance such as Purdue Pharma fueling the opioid crisis makes headlines, it has the effect of tarnishing even the most ethical actors in the industry. When they hear about a scandal, “People don’t know if that’s a big company, if that’s a small company, if they’ve been around for 15 minutes or a hundred years,” says Johnson.

Kristin Rand at Moderna echoed his concern. “We can continue to build upon what’s been established now, this better perception and appreciation,” she says. “But it’s up to us as an industry to keep it going.” A few scandals involving less scrupulous companies could easily undermine their good work.

An assembly line preparing doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine to be shipped out into the world and eventually into the arms of patients

However, the pandemic has created brand awareness for companies in the vaccine or treatment race. “People are asking, ‘Did you get the Pfizer, the Moderna, or the J&J?’ I think that awareness is helping people to understand that this industry is responsible for drug innovation in this country, and really for the world, too,” says Holly.

And while Holly expresses chagrin that many people mistakenly believed that “Regeneron” is the name of the REGEN-COV treatment and not the company behind it, that confusion is nonetheless a clear sign of the company’s increasing visibility. Hopefully, trust will follow.

“I think we do have an opportunity,” says Johnson. “It’s one we are beginning to talk a lot about internally. I talk about it extensively with my peers from lots of different companies. How do we take advantage of this opportunity in a very positive way and sustain it?”

To sustain this public goodwill, companies may look to maintaining the new communication and collaboration practices born in the pandemic that earned it in the first place. For example, some new transparency may outlast the crisis. “It’s become part of our culture as we’ve grown into a commercial organization to be so transparent,” says Kristin Rand.

Ultimately, Rand believes that operating with such radical openness for Moderna’s first product will inevitably leave a strong cultural imprint on all future work—perhaps including the company’s just-announced trials for an HIV vaccine. Holly and Johnson agree that their own organizations’ habits may also be permanently shifted.

Johnson ultimately hopes that the public realizes that the groundwork for success had been laid long before the pandemic started. “Hopefully, people take that as really substantive proof that this company must have started with a pretty darn good sense of culture and commitment to scientific integrity, quality and safety. If we didn’t have it, we weren’t going to make it up in the midst of the fray.”

About the Author:

Tyler Lawrence is Director, Data & Services for Ethisphere, and was until recently the Executive Editor of Ethisphere Magazine. He oversees the content of the print and digital magazines, and contributes to Ethisphere special reports and other publications. He is deeply engaged in conversations about ESG, the purpose of a corporation in the 21st century, and how an ethical company should interact with its many stakeholders.

Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter Ethisphere Insights for the latest articles, episodes, and updates.


Free Magazine Access!

Fill out the form below, and get access to our Magazine Library

Free Magazine Access!

Fill out the form below, and get access to our Magazine Library