By Joseph Walker 

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel wore a white lab coat and head mirror strapped to his forehead on his talk show last month and talked about Covid-19 vaccines that use messenger RNA. "This technology could be a real game-changer," he says.

The skit was sponsored by vaccine maker Moderna Inc., one of a number of direct-to-consumer advertisements paid for by pharmaceutical companies aimed at hesitancy and lack of awareness toward vaccines and drugs for Covid-19.

Vaccine maker Pfizer Inc. has made ads featuring people spending time with loved ones that conclude by asking " Why will you get vaccinated?" Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., maker of a monoclonal antibody drug treatment, recently began running ads on television, radio and social media. Eli Lilly & Co., maker of a rival antibody therapy, has ads on social media and search engines targeted at people in areas with high infection rates.

Moderna's consumer outreach is primarily focused on digital advertising, says the company, including the sponsorship of online video discussions on a news website focused on historically Black colleges and universities.

The advertising isn't typical for pharmaceutical companies. Unlike most drug promotions, the ads aren't aimed at gaining a leg up on competitors or boosting sales in the next quarter, the companies said. The goal is to persuade Americans to use potentially lifesaving products that are already bought and paid for by the U.S. government and provided free to consumers.

The campaigns more closely resemble those for launches of new drugs for diseases with few or subpar treatment options, such as the unbranded disease-awareness campaigns that hepatitis C drugmakers sponsored in the 2010s urging people to get tested for the liver disease. Except that with Covid-19, the window for reaching consumers is smaller, says Kristen Eisterhold, Eli Lilly & Co.'s marketing director for Covid-19 antibody treatments, because of the urgency to control the pandemic.

"Oftentimes in healthcare, it takes months, years, and sometimes even decades to create awareness," says Ms. Eisterhold. "Our challenge really was how do you as quickly as possible establish broad awareness with healthcare providers and consumers that these treatment options exist."

The ads don't mention products by name, in part because of marketing restrictions imposed by the emergency-use authorizations granted by the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, the ads refer to broader categorizations such as "monoclonal antibodies" or "mRNA vaccines."

Vaccine makers are trying to reach the roughly one-third of Americans who are reluctant to get vaccinated, according to the most recent opinion polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some 15% of people polled by Kaiser in April said they want to "wait and see" before being vaccinated, and 19% said they would definitely not get vaccinated or would do so only if required.

Regeneron and Lilly say they are trying to raise awareness that their drugs are available to recently diagnosed people at risk of developing severe cases. In clinical trials, the drugs helped reduce hospitalizations or death by 70% compared with placebos. Since being authorized last November, however, the drugs have been underused, partly because many patients and doctors don't know about them, according to the companies.

Through early May, just 49% of the nearly one million antibody doses made by Regeneron and Lilly have been used by patients, according to a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman. From last year through the first quarter of 2021, Lilly has recorded $1.5 billion in U.S. sales from the drugs; Regeneron's U.S. antibody revenue was $448 million over the same period.

Regeneron ran its first TV ad in late April just before the Academy Awards broadcast on ABC. The 30-second spot features actors repeating the phrase "monoclonal antibodies" in an attempt to familiarize the public with a term that doesn't roll off the tongue, and a narrator who says the drugs may help certain people stay out of the hospital.

"It is a mouthful," says Maya Bermingham, Regeneron vice president for public policy and government affairs. "And for the average person, what they want to know is: 'Is there a treatment? When do I get it?' "

Another Regeneron TV commercial urges patients diagnosed with Covid-19 to call their doctors immediately to ask about monoclonal antibodies if they are at high risk of severe disease.

Regeneron's campaign is scheduled to run through the end of the second quarter and is targeting 19 markets including Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit, and expected to reach roughly 40% of the U.S. population, a spokeswoman says.

Priya Nori, an infectious disease specialist in Bronx, N.Y., says she saw the Regeneron ad while watching the Oscars. She thought the ads would be helpful in raising awareness but were poorly timed because infection rates have fallen so much in recent months.

"I was texting with my colleagues saying, 'This is really cool, I just wish this commercial was not in April when things were ramping down and lot of people had gotten their first vaccine doses,'" says Dr. Nori, who oversees Covid-19 antibody drug infusions for Montefiore Health System. "That commercial should've come out in January, that would have helped us the most."

Regeneron has spent about $545,000 on national TV ads related to Covid-19 and its commercial have been seen 142.5 million times, according to Inc., a TV ad-measurement firm. The company declined to comment.

Moderna declined to comment on its advertising budget, but said in its first-quarter financial statement that its spending on marketing and other expenses increased by $10 million compared with the year-earlier quarter.

Lilly and Pfizer declined to say how much they have spent on Covid-19 advertising. One of Pfizer's commercials showing a baby announcement as a reason to be vaccinated, iSpot said, was seen 8.3 million times and had $78,000 in national TV ad spend.

Write to Joseph Walker at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 16, 2021 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

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