Back in the aughts, Pfizer employed the largest sales force in pharma: a whopping 11,000 reps. The massive numbers enabled the company to dispatch scores of “detailers,” as they were called, into doctors’ offices to promote ‘90s-era blockbusters like Viagra and Lipitor. Other companies did the same and field forces ballooned. 

Until 2007, that is. That’s when Lipitor’s would-be successor failed in clinical trials, prompting Pfizer to announce a 20% cut in the size of its rep army. It was a move that one analyst said at the time seemed like the “end of an arms race,” spurring the rest of the industry to go leaner, as well.

This week felt like déjà vu all over again. Pfizer announced it will shrink its U.S. sales staff on the expectation that a sizable portion of meetings with healthcare providers will stay virtual even after the pandemic.

“We are evolving into a more focused and innovative biopharma company, and evolving the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world,” the company said. “There will be some changes to our workforce to ensure we have the right expertise and resources in place to meet our evolving needs.”

That jibes with recent research showing that physicians prefer a mix of digital and in-person engagement, and that remote or hybrid meetings, now firmly ensconced in the pharma marketing playbook, are expected to remain as such post-pandemic.

Like Pfizer’s move 15 years ago, will this one – which will reportedly affect a few hundred positions – once again portend a broader shift toward leaner sales forces among other pharma companies?

Pfizer didn’t just save hundreds of millions of dollars when it axed part of its sales force in 2007. The overabundance of sales reps had generated a backlash among doctors complaining about visits from multiple reps from the same company promoting the same drug; the pullback quieted some of that noise.

Today, physicians similarly find themselves inundated by pharma industry communication –  the impersonal kind. One study found that many HCPs have received so much content from industry that they feel spammed, although companies are endeavoring to make their content relevant. 

Pfizer isn’t the first to pare back reps in the COVID era. Amgen announced sales force layoffs a year ago. So are we about to witness another across-the-board field force resizing? 

A second potential driver of the decision is that Pfizer is expected to derive roughly 50% of 2022 revenue from its COVID-19 vaccine, which it developed with BioNTech, and its new oral COVID-19 antiviral, Paxlovid. Both are being sold directly to governments, for now. On February 8, when Pfizer shares fourth-quarter and full-year earnings, it’s likely to announce more than $80 billion in revenue in 2021 on brisk sales of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Meanwhile, other companies, like Novartis, are experimenting with population health selling strategies for drug launches, setting aside the typical rep-driven model. 

At the JPMorgan Healthcare conference this week, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla offered a little more color. He noted that the drugmaker’s cash flow was enabled by the digitization of various processes, including its go-to-market approaches. 

“Now, physicians can have access to information about medicines through a digital route rather than through field forces, necessarily,” he said. “If there is a disruption and it helps, we don’t want to be the ones it will happen to. We want to be the ones who will do it.”

Pfizer may have done it again.