Even before Ben Goldacre’s bestselling book ‘Bad Pharma’, the public and the pharmaceutical industry have had an uneasy relationship often marred by misunderstandings as well as reputational crises. Despite the best motivations and achievements of our professional community, the industry has not always enjoyed an entirely positive reputation.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an unexpected catalyst for the industry to reset its image and connect more meaningfully with a society that is more engaged than ever. As the world waits with bated breath for more vaccines and treatments that can unlock the route back to normality, pharma R&D has been thrust into the spotlight. Amid the global devastation and tremendous collective efforts to tackle the crisis, various studies have shown that the reputation of the industry has now increased above 2019 levels.¹
Certainly, in our personal experiences, we are finding that our social circles are more intrigued by our work. During a recent discussion with Alexander Schacht for the Effective Statistician, Nancy Carpenter, a Principal Statistician at Veramed, described a significant increase in curiosity from her friends and family about her role and the clinical trial process. Increasingly, non-scientists are becoming interested in the ins and outs of trial designs, average study timelines, phases, and approval processes. Further, it seems that the route out of the crisis is in pharma’s hands and it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer drive and speed with which the industry has come together and created solutions to seemingly impossible problems.
In 2021 we may hope to emerge from the pandemic into a post-COVID pharma landscape, characterised by a renewed and deeper engagement with the public. If that is the case, what impact might we see from that uplift in perception on day-to-day operations and trends within sponsors and CROs?
Closure of the skills gap
As the pharma industry moves forward with a renewed reputation, we might expect a recruitment surge as new graduates become more interested in the pharma sector. Now is the time to increase our collaborations with universities and academic centres and share our experiences to communicate the rewards of a biopharmaceutical career. As we have described in a recent article, the pharma sector is competing heavily against tech giants for analytical skills, and an improved industry profile will help attract the right talent to enable us to capitalise on the big data revolution.
Patient enrolment and retention
Patient enrolment has been a struggle for years, representing a significant barrier for clinical development with 11% of sites failing to enrol a single patient. Very often, trial timelines must extend significantly to meet recruitment goals. While CenterWatch reported an uplift over the last three years in the ability of trials to reach enrolment aims³, it was not clear whether this was due to better strategies or less ambitious targets. Sadly, COVID has interrupted ongoing clinical trials with 1000 organisations reporting disruption according to a briefing in Nature⁴. However, as we emerge from the crisis, could we expect better engagement with clinical trials? A 2016 study found that 63% of investigators surveyed believed that positive press and media awareness of clinical trials would positively impact subject recruitment⁵. In 2020, the industry has had an exceptionally high media profile, and therefore we might hope to see this translate into greater awareness amongst potential trial participants. Incidentally, to adapt to the COVID-19 pressure, trial sponsors have needed to embrace more virtual approaches, and so these too might help to make participation a more viable option for patients in the future as well as streamline operations.
The Financial Times reported in July⁶ that the biotech index had outperformed the S&P 500 index and the investment picture was buoyant for biotechs with innovative, cutting-edge scientific platforms. Increased investment interest would provide a welcome boost to biotechs working in non-COVID indications, and, by extension, impact on the volume and type of the work that CROs do.
While we no doubt have uncertain months ahead, we may take comfort from the fact that through this crisis, we have been able to demonstrate the value that pharmaceutical R&D brings to society. As we shape a post-COVID future, a continued focus on community, innovation and collaboration may help us to accelerate development in stronger partnership with the public.