Strategic silence: Lack of follow-up after Big Pharma-CRO deals ‘dangerous’ says expert

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Strategic deals usually all fanfare with little follow up says expert
Strategic deals usually all fanfare with little follow up says expert

Related tags Clinical trial Pharmaceutical industry

The fanfare that accompanies Big Pharma strategic partnerships with CROs is rarely followed by progress reports according to an industry consultant, who warns the lack of feedback means mistakes are repeated.

In April​ when Pfizer confirmed​ that PPD would be its third strategic partner the US CRO was tight lipped, declining to comment on the deal when quizzed by Since then little new information have been forthcoming.

This contrasts with the approach taken by Icon and Parexel when they signed up as Pfizer’s strategic contract research partners in 2011​. Both CROs put out press statements highlighting the deal (here​) as did the US drugmaker​.

But in the months that followed there has been little further comment from Icon and Parexel. The only way to gauge how each partnership has progressed has been to scour the financial statements​ of the contractors​.

Other partnerships have followed the same pattern as the Icon and Parexel deal. In 2010 when Bristol-Myers Squib signed up strategic CROs – also Icon and Parexel​ – it highlighted the news as a boon for its clinical activities, but has provided little information in the years since.

Similarly, when Sanofi partnered with preclinical services CRO Covance in 2010 ​it made a big noise about the deal. Subsequently the agreement has only been mentioned in passing in Covance’s results or as an aside during its acquisition by LabCorp​.


The reluctance to share information fits with the traditional drug industry approach of keeping competitors at arm’s length. However, it is at odds with the new climate of pre-competitive collaboration and ethos of organisations like TransCelerate Biopharma​.

Failure to share details of strategic deals may have a wider impact according to Julianne Hull, CEO of WenStar Enterprises, who told us “what is most dangerous about this is that because details are not made public, the industry as a whole does not quickly learn how to avoid the pitfalls encountered​.”

Details about specific [strategic] deals are really difficult to come by, and where those details are available, they are rarely made publicly available. This is in stark contrast to the back slapping presentations that herald new partnerships and is likely due to the fact that the details could cause at least one of the parties some embarrassment​.

 Julianne Hull, CEO of WenStar Enterprises

Hull cited change management as one area being impacted, suggesting that “While you would expect the CRO to be keen to adapt, the partnership sponsor is likely to find change harder to manage.

The sponsor will typically need to create infrastructure and governance platforms with employees that are often experienced of running clinical trials, not managing a partner to run the trial. While alignment at the top is usually good, there is a tendency to focus on the relationship, and not the outcomes and goals the relationship is designed to reach​.”


The impact strategic deals have on employees is another area that could be improved by greater information sharing.

For example, Icon took on Pfizer staff under the firms’ strategic partnership​ and more recently​ Parexel hired employees from GSK with which it established an accord in​ 2010.

Disclosing this sort of information would help industry according to Hull, who said: “Concerns about jobs being outsourced is sadly an ever-present factor in today’s pharmaceutical industry, but the key stumbling block is ensuring alignment and a focus on generating valuable clinical trial data. There are not fewer jobs – but changes in location or companies.”

She added that: “There is never likely to be a one-size fits all solution, but increasing transparency between all organisations engaging in clinical trials partnerships would facilitate knowledge and experience sharing​.”

Julianne Hull will challenge the industry to create truly strategic partnerships at the Partnerships in Clinical Trials (PCT)​ in Hamburg, Germany in November.

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