Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

How 3 of biopharma’s most powerful women are building public trust during COVID

September 29, 2020, 8:59 PM UTC

There’s a fundamental problem with a crisis: The institutions responsible for clawing us out of it are, understandably, held to a much higher standard by the public and may be regarded with a certain skepticism.

In a health crisis such as a global pandemic, that’s a challenge that the medical industry must grapple with: Without their tests, treatments, and vaccines, returning to normalcy could prove an impossible task. And that’s why companies like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Abbott are relying on transparency and a set of guiding scientific principles in order to gain public trust during the COVID-19 pandemic, a trio of industry leaders said during Fortune’s 2020 Most Powerful Women (MPW) virtual summit on Tuesday.

“Ensuring the public understands the ethical standards and the scientific integrity we expect, that sets a very strong tone for the company and also the entire industry,” said Angela Hwang, president of Pfizer’s biopharmaceuticals unit, which is developing a coronavirus vaccine in partnership with Germany’s BioNTech.

Publicly disclosing standards and the way that clinical trials are designed is critical, according to Hwang. But so is active public outreach, especially in countries like the U.S. where there’s a high rate of vaccine skepticism.

“We have made large advances by working with credible stakeholders to provide education to groups like patient advocacy groups and public institutions,” she said, adding that “we know that it is important to focus on our minority populations who have been disproportionately affected” by COVID-19.

Johnson & Johnson’s Dr. Macaya Douoguih, head of clinical development for the vaccines group at Janssen, the firm’s pharmaceutical arm, concurred. “We’ve been as transparent as possible,” she said of her own firm’s coronavirus vaccine candidate.

Vaccine development is one thing; testing for the pathogen is a very different challenge given that diagnostics, in the early stages of the pandemic, were wildly inconsistent and in some cases unreliable. To change that dynamic and build trust in a different sense, companies like Abbott had to do a lot of early preparation, building up manufacturing capacity while developing multiple kinds of tests.

“We knew early on you need tests with a fast turnaround and tests that can be deployed in different settings,” said Abbott EVP Andrea Wainer. “We knew on this one it was going to be multiple tests, no one test was going to do it all.”

Those efforts have paid off, according to Wainer. This year, the company has developed eight different coronavirus diagnostics globally and conducted 72 million tests to date.

More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune: