COVID-19 is not the only matter on the mind of pharmaceutical and biotechnology executives, although the pandemic certainly has impacted how they do business. In the latest iteration of Almac Group’s annual survey of industry leaders, the virus certainly plays a factor, but so do concerns like flexibility from service providers, technology, innovation and speed to market.
Outsourcing-Pharma (OSP) spoke with Kevin Reid (KR), global vice president of marketing for Almac Group, and Laura Montgomery (LM), senior director of marketing and insights, about the surveys, and what they mean for the short- and long-term future of the industry.
OSP: Could you please provide an overview of these surveys—how long you’ve been executing them, how you pick the recipients, what they’re used for, anything surprising generally revealed in them, etc.?
KR: This survey is an ongoing and in-built process at Almac Group, and we find it beneficial. In previous years we have identified how customer needs have evolved; in terms of having partners that are easy to work with and specifically what they felt that meant – as a direct result of this feedback, Almac Group worked diligently to change some internal procedures and policies to improve the overall experience for our customers.
LM: Every year Almac Group conducts a large-scale survey with industry professionals and prospects that aims to understand key trends in the outsourced pharmaceutical services industry - this year the survey was done against the unique backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic
An annual survey run by Almac’s market insights team, this survey aims to provide the data necessary to remain fully forward-looking as an organization. The objectives of this study are to understand key trends in our industry, the preferences of clients, and to integrate that feedback into future decisions and investments, and ultimately provide the highest level of service, and the right service areas to our clients.
Regarding the survey itself, Almac have been conducting this research program for four years, partnering with a third-party provider to help access the participants. Participants are chosen based on their relevance to us in terms of company type and job title - meaning a well divided mix of countries, company size, and company type (pharmaceutical and biotech companies). The latest survey was conducted in June, at the height of the pandemic.
OSP: Can you share what this research has tended to reveal about different world events (such as dramatic economic up/downturns, significant weather events, previous pandemics, political developments, etc.)?
LM: No matter the crisis, people are always going to need their life sustaining and life-saving medications. So, while the need doesn’t change when there is a global event, it’s not uncommon to see the industry adapt in the short term when saddled with unforeseen challenges and pressures.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the healthcare market in so many ways it is difficult to imagine that things will ever be the same as they were. Companies have been forced to quickly adopt methods to facilitate more virtual and patient centric trials (something that has been debated within the industry for years) and development and approval timelines for therapeutics have been accelerated at a rate never thought possible. Relationships and partnerships between drug developers and outsourced service providers have successfully continued despite the inability to meet face to face.
For those of us who study changing trends in the industry, the question we find ourselves asking is this: what from “crisis mode” will endure as a new part of a company’s operations, and consequently, how will this affect their outsourcing needs in the longer term.
OSP: What did the respondents reveal about what they’re looking for service providers to help them with?
KR: It was inevitable that all the changes related to COVID-19 would impact drug developer needs and expectations when it came to their partners and service providers. We weren’t surprised to see that when we asked respondents how they wanted their outsourced service providers to support them we did see some shifts vs. 2019,
LM: ‘Flexibility’ ranked as a top ask (second highest) from service providers, both in terms of service options but also in relation to speed. By contrast, in 2019 the second most important key area was project management and customer experience.
Technology and innovation featured in 2019 as the fourth and fifth most commonly requested areas of support from service providers. In 2020, we also saw them in fourth and fifth place but with a focus very much on using these technologies to improve speed to market and to support more virtual interactions and services.
OSP: What did this year’s respondents share related to COVID-19 and its impact on various aspects of clinical trials?
LM: In terms of R&D activity at this time, the results revealed a modest impact. For 31% of respondents there had been no impact to ongoing clinical trial activity and it was ‘business as usual’. 38% of respondents believed it would take between 2 and 4 months before their company would return to pre-COVID levels of ongoing clinical trial activity, while the remainder believed it would be 6 months or longer.
Company location did not alter respondent feedback with both respondents in the US and EU feeding back similar results to the overall global average. In terms of company type, there was little difference between pharma companies and biotechs while CROS reported that they perceived the resumption of normal activity may take slightly longer – 47% saying 6 months or longer vs. 31% on average.
In terms of starting new clinical trials the impact was relatively similar. 25% of respondents said there had been no impact when it came to initiating new trial starts while 36% believed it would take between 2 and 4 months before their company would return to pre-COVID levels. Again there was little difference by company location but in terms of company type, CROS were much more conservative in their views - 59% saying a return to pre-Covid levels of new trial starts would take 6 months or longer vs. 39% on average.
It was clear from these results that at the time of surveying there was a level of uncertainty around the impact of COVID-19 on clinical trial activity. An analysis from GlobalData from May to October shows a steady resumption in disrupted clinical trials and as of October 16, 2020, 784 clinical trials that had been disrupted were now back on track.
OSP: Dialing down a little further, what do the results of this survey say about decentralized technology and other tools that could be helpful in weathering the COVID-19 storm?
KR: Almac Group already had many new virtual tools in place or under development when the pandemic hit – our transition to home based working was made much easier through our newly implemented conferencing software. Globally, both in terms of internal communication but more importantly being able maintain the consistent and valuable contact with our customers. We went virtual in other ways.
We recorded virtual tours of our facilities both for auditing and information purposes – customer visits to our sites were very frequent before the pandemic and we knew it was essential for us to continue to support them and find a mechanism for audits to take place so that the crucial life-saving work we were doing for our clients could continue.
AG: Even before the pandemic began, much had been written about the possibility of conducting clinical trials in a more patient-centric and remote fashion. The rapidly changing circumstances naturally increased the need for new tools to allow this to happen as well as accelerating the propensity to adopt these approaches.
Data from our survey showed that as of June, 41% of respondents said that accelerated adoption of technology to allow virtual interactions with patients had already impacted their clinical development model. The data also showed it was clear that other modifications such as protocol design modifications and stricter site evaluation criteria were also being made to try and allow continuation of clinical trials within the changing environment.
OSP: Is there anything you’d like to add we didn’t touch upon above?
LM: Results from the survey revealed that despite the pandemic, face to face interactions (whether in person or virtual) were still the most preferred method of interacting with outsourced service providers, with 39% of respondents rating this as a ‘very credible’ channel– consistent with data from previous years.
Other channels that featured highly in terms of credibility were webinars, industry events (again virtual or face to face), company websites and thought leadership articles.
It is clear from this data that decision makers still want to continue to communicate directly with their vendors. It also reveals that they are also keen to continue to interact with us in environments where we can share learnings and knowledge on key industry topics and trends.
In terms of making a final decision on an outsourcing partnership, the impact of credibility cannot be overlooked.
KR: When decision makers are surveyed about their top motivators for choosing an outsourcing partner, trust in the company always leads. This year, we observed a further 6% increase in trust/previous relationship as a factor in key partnership decision and vendor selections; that tells us that in the absence of meaningful face-to-face interactions, our peers at pharma and biotech companies are ‘going with what they know,’ and relying on trusted relationships and brands to fulfill their needs.