Even during a pandemic, new drugs are still hitting the market. One new medicine, Novo Nordisk’s diabetes treatment Rybelsus, launched this year as the coronavirus fundamentally altered doctors’ and patients’ lives.

The treatment was approved in late 2019 after gaining accelerated approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The launch was scheduled for early 2020, right as the coronavirus began to ramp up around the world.

Because patients with diabetes are at a higher risk from COVID-19, Novo Nordisk also incorporated education about COVID-19 and diabetes into its launch strategy.

“We introduced the drug at the beginning of the year, no doubt the coronavirus situation threw a curveball to how we were going to approach it,” said Ed Cinca, VP of the GLP-1 portfolio at Novo Nordisk. “We continued to accelerate this launch considering many patients would benefit particularly because of coronavirus. Patients with uncontrolled diabetes are suffering the most, when it comes to complications associated with COVID-19. It doubled down on our purpose with the introduction of Rybelsus. We needed to ensure that physicians were taking action with a medicine that was powerful enough to support them and easy enough to do so through innovations in telemedicine.” 

To adapt to the loss of in-person meetings, Novo Nordisk began holding virtual events for physicians. One such event was its speaker series, typically a two-day live event. Cinca said the transition was fairly smooth to virtual.

The virtual event also saw higher attendance as physicians no longer needed to leave the office and travel to the venue to join in, Cinca said.

As routine doctor visits fell in March and April, Novo Nordisk introduced a virtual copay program and patient education effort for Rybelsus that allowed patients to sign up via text. The support program gave patients virtual access to a certified diabetes educator, Cinca said, allowing them to ask questions about Rybelsus, diabetes or COVID-19 if their usual doctor wasn’t available.

The company also altered the last few seconds of its direct-to-consumer TV ad, adding information about receiving a three-month supply, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of patients were furloughed or losing jobs, creating economic concern around affording their medicines,” Cinca said. “As a portfolio, we brought forward more education about the unfortunate reality that many of these patients are suffering at disproportionate numbers relative to the general population. We want to make sure physicians are aware that patients who are uncontrolled in diabetes are more susceptible to complications from COVID-19 and make educational resources available to them.”

At the height of the pandemic in the U.S., the Rybelsus team also made sure to align their communications with the customer’s needs.

A patient or doctor in New York didn’t have the same needs as one in New Mexico in April, Cinca said. The company was careful not to overwhelm its patients or HCPs during an uncertain time.

“For us, it has been a recognition of being on the customer’s agenda and better understanding where your customer is coming from,” he said. “We make sure our customers are getting all the information and products they need. But the other side is the recognition that this is not what they may need right now and that every area of the country is being impacted differently. We were checking in, making sure patients have access to the product, but it was not the time for us to start introducing new clinical data or to put a foot forward into the sales realm.”

Internally, Cinca said the digital teams took the rapid shift to virtual in stride. To his teams, Cinca emphasized the need for clarity and purpose in every decision or communication.

“I coach youth sports and one of the things you’ll hear me yelling on the sidelines is, ‘Let’s go!’” Cinca said. “We’ve incorporated that into everything we’re doing, even email sign offs. ‘Let’s go!’ has become a rallying cry inside our organization, with people trying to outdo each other with exclamation points at the end of it. It’s no simple feat to turn those things around and do so in a way that has been simple. Everybody is running toward it with everything we have.”