INTERVIEW | Sharad Tyagi Mumbai

‘Without a vaccine, organisations will have to reorient operations’

President of OPPI on challenges ahead for the pharma sector

Pharmaceuticals production and supply was considered an essential activity right from the beginning of the lockdown on March 25, but industry operations suffered due to supply chain disruptions as well as shortage of transport and labour. While production and distribution are slowly coming back to normal, sales have taken a hit with new prescriptions slowing down drastically and elective surgeries being deferred. Edited excerpts from a chat with Sharad Tyagi, president of the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI), on the challenges ahead for the pharma sector:

How has the pharma industry coped with the lockdown over the past few months?

When the lockdown began, the immediate challenges facing the industry were largely operational, related to the supply chain — getting the products from inventory to the stockists and distributors, and through them to the retailers and customers. Inter-State movement was severely hampered, with trucks not available as well as labour for warehouses. So the industry struggled in the initial six weeks or so, as things took time to streamline. The Department of Pharma, and other State and Central departments helped, but it takes time for directives to reach the ground level with the local police and administration. I would say that today, that part of the supply chain is reasonably well under control. It may not be normal, but some of the labour is back. We keep having odd hiccups, sometime in May, when there were high cases near the warehouses, restrictions were imposed on the number of workers that can operate. But these were managed over time.

I would say that one of the most important things has been a free flow of information between organisations, and the pharma bodies — the OPPI, IPA and the IDMA — despite differences, have worked together very well on a lot of challenges. Today, the supply chain between our warehouses to the retailers is reasonably better. Of course, pharma companies are essential, but cannot function without ancillaries such as those who supply raw materials and packaging material. So the entire manufacturing side of the supply chain by the end of May was operating around 50%-60% of capacity. But it has been steadily improving as more industries have been allowed to operate. But with the call for self-reliance, I am sure many companies will focus on increasing capacity for locally made raw material such as active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) rather than imports from China or other countries. Imports have so far been okay, apart from customs clearances that were initially slow but have now become better. Exports have similarly improved. Couriers were not functioning, but then it was interesting that airlines like SpiceJet and Air India operated as cargo carriers. The issue of labour (availability) may continue for some more time.

How have industry sales been affected due to the lockdown?

Not surprisingly, there has been a decline in sales in May… as from a perspective of patients’ interactions with doctors, most hospital OPDs have been shut, elective surgeries have been deferred as patients are not feeling safe going to hospitals. A lot of private clinics have been shut, so new prescriptions and diagnosis of ailments has been affected. By and large, pharma sales have been driven by existing patients whose doctors are advising them over the phone or online. If we leave out the six-eight large cities that are still struggling as major COVID-19 hotspots, we may come back to some normalcy and we will have to see what new protocols emerge. We can’t have crowded OPDs or expect 10-15 patients in doctors’ waiting rooms. There is a belief that telemedicine could be used for most non-critical patients or having reports examined. But even in critical care, we are seeing anecdotal data that patients with a stroke or oncology-related problems going to hospitals have reduced as people are worried about co-morbidities. The question now is how we can create a new normal for them to recover confidence, a bit like the security checks that were introduced in civil aviation after the 9/11 attacks. We have changed the way we pack our bags since then. Similarly, the use of masks and stress on hygiene will become better now. The awareness this pandemic has created, may well improve the way other infectious diseases like tuberculosis or the common cold are curbed.

If there is no vaccine for two years, what happens is the question on everybody’s mind..

That’s the tough part. That will make an impact on how organisations work. There are many things you cannot do from homes, those who work in a lab, a factory or deliver goods. There will be an distinction between those activities that require your physical presence or not. We have a human resources committee in OPPI that is working this out. By and large, work for home will be the new normal where physical presence is not required. Employees will come to office in a flexible manner, based on the urgency of the work. such as the need to physically sign some papers, etc. The nine-to-five workdays are history, I think. Even manufacturing will see changes due to the need for physical distancing, be it in terms of supervision or higher automation. Organisations will have to reorient their operations across functions, including the commercial function. For the pharma industry, how will sales reps interact with doctors? That’s going to be an extremely fascinating journey — the last two months have shown that it is possible to have scientific, meaningful interactions with doctors in a digital manner. Rapidly, we will find that even doctors and companies will understand what requires a face-to-face meeting and what doesn’t. A lot of retraining will be required for the workforce. The days of representatives crowding outside doctors’ offices in wait, will not continue.

Open plan offices, that have been the norm in recent years, may no longer be efficient, with needs-based attendance of 40%. Similarly, large cafeterias may not be needed. In my organisation, we are also realising that while you will have lesser people coming, you will need larger meeting rooms due to the need for physical distancing.

Organisations will have to take responsibility to ensure that their employees don’t take undue risks. That will also affect how career choices are made — it won’t be just about remuneration and career growth, but how well organisations treat its people from a health and safety perspective. It’s interesting that when we went into the lockdown, a lot of people said when will this end and when can we go back to work. Now, a lot of people are asking — is this the right time to get back? The anxieties have virtually reversed.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 5:16:03 AM |

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