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GSK, eyeing new blockbuster market, taps Magic Johnson to raise RSV awareness ahead of Pfizer faceoff

GSK has teamed up with Earvin “Magic” Johnson to “Sideline RSV.” Working with the former basketball star and public health advocate, GSK is raising awareness of the risks respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) poses to older adults—and laying the groundwork for its upcoming vaccine launch in the process.

RSV hospitalizes around 177,000 adults aged 65 years and older in the U.S. every year. Yet, while the virus is common and, in some people, dangerous, GSK’s market research identified “a tremendous need for general disease awareness education,” said Leonard Friedland, M.D., VP and director of scientific affairs and public health at the Big Pharma in an interview with Fierce Pharma Marketing. GSK has responded with its “Sideline RSV” campaign. 

The campaign is designed to raise awareness, among both patients and healthcare professionals, about the risks RSV poses to older adults, particularly if they have certain underlying conditions. At the start of the process, GSK considered how to “get share of voice in this new universe of so much information,” including disinformation, Friedland said. The team’s answer? Magic Johnson.

“Having a spokesperson who’s passionate about health and wellness is a way to grab people’s attention and say, ‘okay, that somebody that I’m interested in hearing from, somebody that I trust,’ who in this situation also is very active in working in underrepresented communities, communities of color,” the GSK VP said. “[Magic Johnson] is somebody that is just perfect for this.”

Having met and worked with the former basketball star, Friedland called him “the real deal, somebody who is really truly passionate about health and wellness.” Johnson, who tested positive for HIV in 1991, promoted GSK’s antiretroviral drug Combivir in 2003 and has been a health activist for decades.    

GSK has put Johnson at the center of its campaign. The website is dominated by a photo of Johnson on a basketball court. And GSK has created a video spot in which the star walks down a corridor, seemingly backstage at a basketball arena and heading toward the court, while his voiceover discusses RSV. At the end of the video, the Sideline RSV logo flashes up and viewers are directed to the campaign website.

The website and video are part of a wider omnichannel campaign that will include social media content and community-focused events. The goal is to meet healthcare providers where they are. Johnson’s own reach is central to how GSK aims to achieve that goal.

“Johnson will be putting information on his social media channels, Instagram and Facebook in particular. As people go there, they will be directed to to get more information,” Friedland said.

Friedland hopes the campaign will raise awareness among older adults and get healthcare providers to add RSV to the list of topics they discuss with their patients. The lack of treatments and vaccines for RSV has kept the virus low down the list of topics physicians discuss with patients. But now, with the pipeline poised to deliver an anti-RSV arsenal, talks could soon translate into prescriptions for the first time.

GSK is likely to be among the chief commercial beneficiaries of an uptick in conversations about RSV. Having recently received the backing of an FDA advisory committee, GSK and Pfizer look set to become the first two companies to launch RSV vaccines for older adults, with both eyeing PDUFA dates this May in the hopes of approval.