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Coronavirus, politics and the economy: A Q&A with US pharma editor Hannah Kuchler

With the Covid-19 outbreak impacting organisations across all sectors, businesses are increasingly looking towards the pharmaceuticals industry and its work on the pandemic.

We sat down with US pharma and biotech correspondent Hannah Kuchler to ask her how those within and around the industry can use the FT to gain market intelligence, and where professionals from other sectors can engage with the FT’s coverage to better understand the changing global landscape.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I write about US pharma and biotech for the Financial Times, where I’ve been a reporter for almost eleven years and on three continents.

I moved to the beat last year because I was particularly interested in how technology is transforming healthcare, from artificial intelligence in drug discovery to using sensors to remotely monitor patients. I had spent over five years in Silicon Valley reporting for the FT, where I could see that their much-proclaimed desire to ‘save the world’ was bringing more technologists to move their focus to healthcare.

However, now understandably, much of my attention is on the coronavirus pandemic that is challenging - but not saving - the world. I am telling the story of the race for a vaccine, progress on possible drugs, and how the US healthcare system is coping with Covid-19.

How do the FT’s pharma writers function as a team to connect insights from across the globe?

We have a truly global team that connects every day - usually through the business messaging service Slack - to ensure we are covering all the important angles and writing stories that join the dots between what companies and governments in different regions are doing.

In London, we have a core team that includes the global pharmaceutical editor, Sarah Neville, and the science editor, Clive Cookson, and across Europe and China, we work with foreign correspondents who have relationships with pharma and biotech companies on the ground. I am based in New York but also work closely with our DC bureau on the more political pharma stories.

Many scientists I speak to have enjoyed cutting the red tape and speeding up the process of working with colleagues across the world, and they hope they can use these strategies in their search for drugs for other conditions too.

Hannah KuchlerHannah Kuchler, US pharma and biotech correspondent, FT

How has the pharma industry changed over the last ten years or so - and what change has come about with the impact of the coronavirus?

The pharma industry has become more specialized in recent years, with rapid advances in crucial areas such as immuno-oncology - harnessing the immune system to fight cancer - and rare diseases. These products have saved and transformed lives but also often come with high price tags, unlike the mass market pills that the industry used to churn out.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen companies strike unusual partnerships with each other, and with governments to accelerate the process of finding treatments and vaccines for Covid-19. Many scientists I speak to have enjoyed cutting the red tape and speeding up the process of working with colleagues across the world, and they hope they can use these strategies in their search for drugs for other conditions too.

How would you say the role of biotech has changed in the pharma industry?

There used to be a clear divide between biotech companies - the upstarts who specialized in biological medicines - and ‘Big Pharma’, giant, storied companies with a portfolio of pills. But pharma companies are now heavily invested in biological medicines too and some of the original biotechs are either part of larger conglomerates - like Genentech is part of Roche - or very large in their own right, such as Amgen or Gilead.

How do you see the uncertain political landscape impacting the world of pharmaceuticals? Are there any trends or stories that readers should look out for in the coming months?

Investors are moving into the sector partly because they judge that the political risk that has overhung the stocks for years is now less of a threat. They hope that the industry will improve its reputation through its work on Covid-19 and see the exit of Bernie Sanders from the presidential race as reducing the risk of tough drug pricing legislation.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen companies strike unusual partnerships with each other, and with governments to accelerate the process of finding treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen companies strike unusual partnerships with each other, and with governments to accelerate the process of finding treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen companies strike unusual partnerships with each other, and with governments to accelerate the process of finding treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen companies strike unusual partnerships with each other, and with governments to accelerate the process of finding treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen companies strike unusual partnerships with each other, and with governments to accelerate the process of finding treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.

However, we at the FT will be reporting closely on the pricing issue in the run up to November’s election. If there is public outcry about how a company prices a Covid-19 drug or vaccine, it may reignite politicians’ desire to promise big changes in drug pricing. The presidential candidates may not be as radical as Sanders but both President Trump and Joe Biden have promised to reform US drug pricing in the past.

Which other sectors do you think the pharmaceutical industry heads should be educating themselves further on to mitigate risk?

I think it is very important to watch the technology industry. Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon have their eyes on the huge potential of healthcare. They are unlikely to start producing their own drugs just yet. But they are providing tools, such as databases and devices for running clinical trials, which give drugmakers more accurate data, and have ambitious plans to change how healthcare is delivered that would affect the whole industry.

I also think it is very important for the C-suite to watch the economy - now more than ever. As the unemployment rate soars, Americans will lose their insurance. In the US, the pharma industry’s largest market, drugmakers are dependent on insurers paying for their products. Do people move onto government-backed plans or do they decline care, causing a drop in demand for the pharmaceutical industry? Will this increase concerns about high prices?

If there is public outcry about how a company prices a Covid-19 drug or vaccine, it may reignite politicians’ desire to promise big changes in drug pricing.

Hannah KuchlerHannah Kuchler, US pharma and biotech correspondent, FT

How do you think pharma professionals can benefit from regularly reading the FT’s pharma and healthcare coverage?

At the FT, we give people a bigger picture than you can find in trade publications. We connect the dots between the pharma industry and the politicians who set the goalposts for it and the investors who fuel it. We interview senior leaders across the world, giving readers insight into competitors, governments, and academia in other regions.

The FT is almost always seen as an essential read for C-suite and executive positions - why is it important for middle managers and early career starters to read the FT?

This year has shown us how a whole world can be taken by surprise. The pharma industry may have been aware of the threat of a pandemic - but many other sectors were not. Equally, there are surprises lurking in other sectors that could upend pharma.

At any level in business, people who can look round corners and plan for other eventualities progress. The FT can be your handbook for understanding the threats and opportunities that come from spirited new rivals, encroachment by other industries, and political tidal waves. Plus, I find it entertaining!

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