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Operation vaccine: The biggest new product launch the world has ever seen

Operation vaccine: The biggest new product launch the world has ever seen

As the rollout of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 begins across the UK, we are effectively witnessing the biggest new product launch of all time. Never before has there been such a global effort to get a product to so many people, across so many different markets, in such a short space of time.

Of course, it is not just one single product being made and distributed. In addition to the initial vaccine approved for UK use – from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech – there is also a vaccine being developed in the UK by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which should be available by the end of the year. Moderna’s alternative is being trialled in the US; the Gamaleya vaccine, also known as Sputnik V, is already being rolled out in Russia; and the CanSino version is being used by the Chinese military.

While its scale may be unprecedented, this rollout faces the same challenges as any new product launch, and must follow many of the same rules to succeed. A product launch must be supported by a robust marketing, PR and communications strategy, starting well before the actual launch date, to enable it to run smoothly. Let’s take a look at these three key elements of a new product launch and see how they might apply to the COVID-19 vaccines.

An effective marketing plan

All successful new product launches require a strong marketing strategy. Target audiences are defined, and the benefits of the product are communicated to those audiences through engaging marketing campaigns delivered via the most appropriate channels.

It might appear that a vaccine designed to prevent individuals contracting a potentially life-threatening virus wouldn’t require too much in the way of marketing, but this is far from the case. Some people may be uncertain about the vaccines themselves, while others may have anxieties about injections or the process of being vaccinated, and these groups will require reassurance that any new measures are safe and beneficial. There is also a lot of misinformation and scepticism circulating, especially on social media, and the speed with which pharmaceutical companies are having to move from concept to reality is inevitably fuelling concerns.

Marketing campaigns around the vaccines must tackle any misinformation, authentically and transparently communicating how the vaccination process is going to work. As David Salisbury, former director of immunisation at the Department of Health explains, “vaccines are probably the most powerful public health intervention available to us. But unless their benefits are communicated with realism, confidence in all recommendations will be put at risk.”

In the UK, marketing campaigns similar to those used to promote social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures are expected to encourage vaccine uptake. Advertising is likely to run across a variety of channels including print, TV, radio, out-of-home, digital display, social and in-game advertising, depending on the audiences it is intended to reach.

While the ultimate aim may be mass vaccination to stop transmission, in the UK the vaccine will be delivered in stages. There is a priority list outlining when different groups will get the vaccine, starting with residents in care homes, those aged 80 and over, frontline health and social care workers and those that are clinically extremely vulnerable. These are the audiences that will initially be targeted with marketing messaging, moving onto younger age groups as the rollout progresses.

A smart PR strategy

With any successful product launch, the marketing plan should be supported by PR activities that raise the profile of the company or product by introducing it to the media and associating it with relevant and credible industry commentators or publications.

PR activities around the Pfizer vaccine are already well under way. For instance Dr June Raine, the Chief Executive of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) wrote an article in The Times explaining how the agency was able to safely approve the vaccine so quickly. She also joined a Downing Street technical briefing featuring other scientific experts including Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, Chair of an Expert Working Group of the Commission on Human Medicines (CHM) whose responsibility it is to advise on the quality, safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. PR activities for other vaccines are also in motion, with the BBC recently running a profile of Professor Sarah Gilbert who designed the Oxford vaccine.

The UK government and the NHS are also looking to enlist the help of well-known names and faces to persuade people to get vaccinated, according to The Guardian. Asking trusted celebrities and influencers with sizeable social media followings to endorse the vaccine, could help to address scepticism and drive uptake. And members of the public who have already had the vaccine will also be playing their part. Ninety-year-old Margaret Keenan, the first person to be vaccinated as part of the UK rollout, gave an interview in which she said, “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it. If I can have it at 90 then you can have it too.”

Clear communication of information

In addition to communicating the benefits of a product through marketing and PR, a new product launch often involves passing on practical information about the product. This may include detailed instructions for the end-user or training for salespeople and distributors.

With multiple COVID-19 vaccines in development, and ultimately likely to be used in parallel, it’s vital to have clear information around the use of each one. Healthcare workers will need training on how to store, prepare and administer the vaccine, and patients will need to understand potential side effects and after care.

In the UK there is a great deal of education already under way, with Public Health England developing an online training programme. This will be used by thousands of extra staff that are being taken on by the NHS to help with the vaccine rollout at the 50 hospitals initially being used as vaccination centres. It will also be used by volunteers such as those from the St John Ambulance charity who will deliver the vaccine directly, as well as providing first aid and other support. In addition to upskilling healthcare workers, information must also be passed to patients to ensure they understand the basics, such as the need to be vaccinated twice – around 21 days apart – and that full immunity only begins seven days after the second dose of the vaccine.

Launching a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK is a considerable feat, but rolling out vaccines in every country across the planet will be a far greater challenge, especially when it comes to   developing countries. UNICEF is already working with more than 350 airlines and freight companies to deliver billions of doses – along with associated supplies such as syringes – to countries such as Burundi, Afghanistan and Yemen. The charity is part of COVAX, a global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan with the World Health Organisation (WHO), and it wants to remind the world that, “the light at the end of the tunnel needs to shine for all.”

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