Read the Conversation

EF: What was Pfizer's role during the pandemic in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa?

RN: Pfizer's role in the region covered three key priorities:

i) Ensure the health and safety of all our employees: we quickly decided to transition into home office mode, even before the government made it mandatory.

ii) Ensure continuity of supply: not allowing the pandemic to disrupt product supply for vaccines and medicines, even with closed borders. We worked with all stakeholders to ensure products were available, and our very extensive hospital-based portfolio was available for patients in hospitals.

iii) Collaboration: we were involved at an association level to assist the industry. We met with the Hospital Association of South Africa and government institutions to help with product supply. The government's biggest issue was vaccine procurement, and we contacted them, so they knew what was required from a contract standpoint.

I happened to be the president of IPASA, and from an industry perspective, we all joined forces searching for solutions. We contributed to multiple platforms, to Business for South Africa and the Solidarity Fund, making funds available for medications. Covid was new to us all, the lack of information was very apparent and we worked with people who could help in that area. Due to lockdowns, restrictions, and closed borders, some countries suffered disruption in their supply chain and people lost their incomes. We operate in many countries with informal economies that suffered severely during the pandemic, and we got involved through charitable foundations to cover people's basic needs. In South Africa alone, Pfizer donated USD 500,000 toward charitable initiatives to cover things like PPE to support the government’s efforts towards addressing the pandemic.

EF: What were the lessons learnt managing a company in such a complex environment? 

RN: The first and most important lesson is that the crucial element in a business is people. With its people behind it, an organisation can withstand any crisis, as can a society. Take care of the people first, and then look to other lessons. Secondly, from a leadership perspective, we needed to become more accessible, communicate more frequently, be more transparent, open and straightforward because people were uneasy and anxious due to the generalised uncertainty. We communicated information that was in the public domain and which we knew to be credible. Thirdly, we adapted to the new way of doing things from a customer point of view but also for our organisation. We couldn't continue communicating with doctors or other stakeholders as we had done pre-Covid, so we made sure our reps understood that it was no longer about detailing product but about checking in and being present in a difficult time - we shifted the conversation. We learnt a lot over this period, some of the new ways we will keep and will become the base of how we engage with our customers and our colleagues in the future. 

EF: If you had to create a Master in Pandemic Administration which skills would you consider mandatory to develop? 

RN: Empathy, adaptability and communication would be my choices. As the pandemic evolved, we went through different phases needing different things at separate times, but the need for an empathic leader remained a constant. I am not sure if empathy can be taught, but a person can learn to observe. Adaptability is crucial in a crisis because things tend to move very quickly, the metrics of success change, and we need to adapt and be comfortable with the new ways. The home office working system made us empathic; if we aren't tolerant of what people are going through, we lose trust. Some managers struggled during this time and we had to support them, helping them focus on outcomes and outputs rather than inputs. Some people worked late at night or very early or when their family life permitted, so as long as the production was there, the team manager must understand and accept this is the new way of working. The office is a controlled environment, the home office is not. Finally, I cannot stress the importance of communication enough. It makes people feel comfortable, breeds trust, makes us more accessible, helps with mental health issues. 

EF: How can we restore focus to non-communicable or chronic diseases in an infectious disease scenario?

RN: Mental health is a non-communicable disease (chronic fatigue, lack of concentration, etc.). Diagnostics and elective surgeries have been delayed and affected by the pandemic as the focus was on Covid. We are now getting back on track and are covering other diseases. The governments of Sub-Saharan Africa faced a difficult task, dealing with the immediate issue of saving lives while other silent diseases advanced. The governments and the health sector will have to find a balance going forward in order to manage this situation as it will take a while to recover.

EF: Collaboration seems to be a critical issue; what would be your advice for leaders on this point? 

RN: All I can say is that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is a classic example of what collaboration can achieve. There are many more examples to prove my point. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it was that we cannot solve healthcare challenges in silos. We must all – patients, industry bodies, governments, and industry players work together to achieve better health for all. Today, as we continue to collaborate with our partners, we focus on developing the necessary infrastructure to encourage industry-wide innovation and growth, including R&D capabilities, regulatory environments, and fostering local talent. Together these efforts are designed to help us deliver more breakthroughs locally to meet unmet patient needs. We can only achieve this by sharing and cooperating in expertise with industry stakeholders.

EF: Did you introduce any new KPIs or change how you measured them over the past year? 

RN: The KPIs changed from the customer's perspective. We had to respond to what the customer was experiencing in the environment and make it relevant and appropriate. We started checking different indicators in our new virtual world to see if we were getting the touchpoints we needed. We reviewed how often a person was reaching out to doctors, and the interaction with them became much more scientific. Overall, there was a massive increase in the demand for medical information that we needed to address, and our medical affairs teams had to call more often to address this point to engage doctors.

EF: How did you attract resources to South Africa from headquarters when other countries were competing for them?

RN: When the pandemic broke out, we reached out to as many governments as possible even before the vaccine was developed and approved, taking the same approach in developing Sub-Saharan countries as in developed countries, sharing the same information. We put forward breakthrough information that could change patients' lives, and the governments had a choice to make. It was the same going to our headquarters, and there was no pitching involved. 

EF: If 2020 was the year of diagnosis and prevention, 2021 the year of vaccines, where do you see 2022 and 2023 headed? 

RN: 2020 and 2021 have been years of learning for us all, years where we had to change our business models and adapt to working virtually. From 2020 onwards, our customers and stakeholders have different expectations and a different understanding of what is possible. Going forward, I see a hybrid model with a combination of virtual and face-to-face interactions becoming the norm. That will mean reaching customers wherever they are and whenever they prefer, irrevocably changing procedures because we must respond to the customer's needs as a company. Collaboration and partnership were thrust upon us, but they have built more trust across the stakeholders and might accelerate solutions for previously challenging issues. The pandemic has allowed us to advance together in a shared cause creating trust between stakeholders. As leaders, we need to leverage these extremely positive learnings.

EF: Considering the future hybrid model, what do you think will be the new skillset needed for future healthcare? How can we attract young talent to the healthcare industry?

RN: Based on customer need, science and content are critical for the future of our sector. Systems must be put in place to be responsive to our customers and build the skill set to provide for that future. An individual who was excellent on a face-to-face basis might not excel in a virtual environment and they will need to learn new skills and, as companies, we need to support that initiative. The importance of science will directly impact engagement between our teams and the doctors. We experience virtual interaction on a day to day basis, and when customers interact with Pfizer, they should ideally need the same level of experience they have with other virtual channels for the acceptable use of our apps. We are all customers and consumers in the new digital economy. So from now on, we need the skills to be responsive to our customers' expectations. 

EF: When you look back on this period in your professional career, how would you like your tenure to be remembered?

RN: We tried our best and we succeeded. Science has won. Pfizer and BioNTech developed a vaccine in less than a year for its use across the world for both developed and developing (low income) countries. Ten years ago, it was inconceivable that innovation arrived at low-income countries immediately; that process generally took five to ten years. The vaccine, our sectors most significant innovation, was made available to everybody in the world within nine months.

October 2021
South Africa