JPMorgan in the time of COVID-19: What to look out for at this year’s healthcare conference

By Lecia Bushak | MM&M | Jan. 11, 2020

Since 1983, the annual JPMorgan Healthcare Conference has brought together thousands of industry leaders, pharma execs and biotech entrepreneurs, not to mention more than 400 private and public companies.

The event has traditionally been held at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, but 2021 is, of course, offering a completely different landscape. While the conference will be virtual this year, it’s still packing a plethora of speakers and keynotes into a mere four days.

Despite the logistical issues surrounding a cyber-event of this scale — and the inevitable Zoom fatigue — the usual high percentage of pharma and healthcare CEOs will be in (virtual) attendance. In fact, that could bring a heightened importance to the conference: It coincides with a period during which the pharma industry has experienced a rising sense of urgency, not to mention a reputational boost, due to its role in vaccine development.

All eyes are on the pharma industry as “problem-solvers,” noted Harris Poll managing director Rob Jekielek. Harris Poll data showed the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation rising throughout the course of 2020. This stands in stark contrast to years past, when its reputation was dragged by issues like drug pricing and opioid litigation.

“For the first time in two decades, [pharma] really has a foil to address and engage in that conversation in a very constructive, tangible way that has a ton of emotive resonance,” Jekielek said. “Because you’re really seeing the industry finding a solution to a problem that’s affecting everyone.”

Many of those problem-solvers will be present at this year’s conference, where they’ll be participating in a packed virtual schedule from Jan. 11-14. It includes a powerhouse presentation on Wednesday with numerous major players in the field of vaccine development and distribution, including Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group group president Angela Hwang, McKesson CEO Brian Tyler, CVS Health EVP and Aetna president Karen Lynch, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel and Operation Warp Speed chief advisorDr. Moncef Slaoui.

The conference arrives at a moment of supreme importance for pharma and health-related communications. To that point, earlier this month Pfizer launched a rebrand and new logo to highlight the company’s shift to biopharma focused on “breakthrough science,” according to CEO Albert Bourla. The rebrand is meant to underscore the company’s “new purpose” in vaccine development and commitment to prevention rather than treatment, Sally Susman, chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, told The Wall Street Journal.

But communications around pharma and vaccine development is still a “huge work in progress,” Jekielek said. He noted that in the midst of logistical issues and misinformation around vaccine development and distribution, pharma companies will need to guide the overarching conversation and use marketing and communications savvy to clarify the science to the average person.

This, he believes, will both make the vaccine distribution process smoother and sustain pharma’s reputation lift.

“On the pharma side, it’s about being able to create clear communication and reinforce the expert voices across industry and government that really should be guiding the conversation in a simple and level-headed way,” Jekielek explained. “The key thing is having a problem-solver hat, versus a promotional hat, on. The industry should try to reinforce, ‘We’re solving problems, that’s our goal here.’”

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