On 2nd December, the UK became the first country in the world to approvethe Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, following review by the MHRA.
This announcement comesa ground-breaking seven months after the start of clinical trials and marks a major breakthrough, but it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Recent criticism that the approval was “hasty” and thespread of misinformation about vaccines on social media has already resulted in vaccination hesitancy.
Providingregular, clear and transparent communications about the new vaccine will be critical toincrease public confidence and encourage vaccination uptake.
Globally vaccine mistrust is growing
Vaccination is the most effective public health intervention available, ranking second only to clean water for disease prevention. Yet in 2019, the World Health Organisation listed vaccination hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health; at the time they couldn’t have imaginedhow soon the potential impact of that threatwould be realised.
A recentstudyfrom UCL found that a fifth of people in the UK said they would be unlikely to get a vaccine for COVID-19. Worryingly, vaccination hesitancy appeared to be higher for the COVID–19 vaccine than the flu vaccine, particularly in older adults.These findings clearly highlight the effect of the ongoing spread of misinformation around COVID-19 and the vaccines.
This growinginfodemic, a term used to describe the flood of information on the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it difficult for people to make informed decisions about their health. It’s therefore crucial that communications around COVID-19 vaccines be clear, honest and openly address the public’s concerns.
Compassion and clear communication will be key to increasing public confidence
The unprecedented speed of the development of COVID-19 vaccines has led many to, perhapsfairly, question whether they have been rushed. These are legitimate concerns and they need to be treated with respect and compassion to avoid alienatinga large group of people and risk them turning to non-trustworthy sources of information.
Professor Heidi Larson, Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, has emphasised the importance of trying to understand these concerns and encourages open and balanced dialogue about both risks and benefits.
Not only are the types of messages important, but the way they are communicated to the public must be considered. The public will inevitably be exposed to rumours and false information, and this must be countered by developing trusted spaces,via social and mainstream media, to share accurate information in an accessible way for the public.
It is exciting to see that healthcare professionals are already starting to adapt,with live Q&As on social media becoming increasingly popular. Doctors are even starting to use TikTokto bust myths about vaccines.
These strategies, along with other innovative methods to share transparent and compassionate messages,will play a critical role in countering the spread of vaccine hesitancy and ultimately ensuring we return to something close to normality in the future.
In global trust barometers, scientists have long featured among the professions most trusted by the public, but pharmaceutical companies remain the least trusted. This is an interesting dichotomy, given that most pharmaceutical employees are scientists.
Public trust has been an issue for the pharmaceutical industry for many years, driven principally by a few high-profile examples of negative practice from several years ago. Even in 2019, it was still the most poorly regarded of industries.
Industries banding together in the global response to COVID-19, coupled with increased curiosity about how medicines and vaccines are developed, has also had a positive impact on pharma’s reputation. This provides an opportunity for the public to change their perceptions of ‘big pharma’ in the long term, but what’s the best way to achieve this?
Transparency in communication is vital
Scientists and researchers have been increasingly visible across media channels during the pandemic to address the public’s concerns and advise those in charge. However, their increasingly public-facing position means that quality of communication is vital. Dr Cevat Giray Aksoy, Lecturer in Economics at King’s College London and co-author of a paper on public trust in science, stated that “if scientists fail to explain their findings clearly and concisely enough to inspire trust in public, people may perceive them as elitists or inaccessible.”
When a participant in a large late-stage AstraZeneca study testing a COVID-19 vaccine suffered a serious adverse reaction, the company immediately, and voluntarily, paused vaccinations and issued a statement where they firmly reiterated their commitment to maintaining “the integrity of the trials.” The following week, as part of efforts to maintain public transparency, researchers at Oxford University, published a comprehensive document explaining that the adverse event was unlikely to be related to the vaccine.
Following the science, not the headlines
Increased public and political pressure to accelerate development of a COVID-19 vaccine, such as President Trump’s ‘Operation Warp Speed’, have only created greater uncertainty about the intentions of drug companies.
In response to this, as part of efforts to engender trust and maintain public confidence, CEOs of nine leading biopharma companies announced a historic pledge in September. They outlined a united commitment to uphold the integrity of the scientific process as they work towards approval of the first COVID-19 vaccines. This includes high scientific and ethical standards, stringent requirements for approval submission and ensuring global access to a range of vaccine options.
Public pledges like this only strengthen the power of collaborations of this kind between academics, pharma companies, regulatory bodies and, most importantly, trial volunteers. Continuing to communicate good practices and ground-breaking science, while keeping patient safety at the heart of the process, will provide optimism and hope for the development and approval of a vaccine.
As the world continues to follow the scientific progress around the COVID pandemic, the pharma industry has the opportunity demonstrate its integrity and commitment to human health, to inform and educate with transparency, and, fundamentally, to win back trust at a time when the world needs it most.
Things were so much easier in 2020 BC (before COVID-19):
“A client wants us to organise a workshop? No problem! We’ve arranged loads of similar events before. We’ll use our experience, follow our tried and tested formula and then tailor the content to meet the specific requirements of this event…”
[Cue a global pandemic shutting down vast swathes of the economy and forcing large areas of the planet into lockdown. The reality of 2020 AC (Anno Coroni) suddenly hits home.]
“… Ah, this is not going to be as easy as we’d imagined! What do we need to do now to make this a success??”
That was basically the internal monologue of Madano’s Healthcare practice leading up to what would become a two-day virtual event for 80 internal stakeholders working in Alzheimer’s disease, with participants scattered around the world from Brazil and Europe to the UAE and Australia. We weren’t entirely sure how we were going to get this one over the line, faced with such unforeseen circumstances and pressures, but we love a challenge, and get it over the line we did! Here are the lessons we learned along the way.
As you can imagine, the event’s virtual setting presented a whole new set of considerations and challenges to overcome, and we wanted to ensure that the event was engaging and fun for everyone sat in their home offices, living rooms, kitchens, and even childhood bedrooms for those who locked down with family!
We began by circulating a survey among participants to help us plan the event in a way that would be of most interest and use to those attending, as well as requesting their current location and time zones (as many people were locked down in areas outside of their offices’ cities!) to help with the scheduling.
The survey also enabled us to determine the type of content attendees would like to be included in the sessions, with a mix of workshops, co-creation, information-sharing and training sessions. In addition, we asked attendees to indicate whose perspectives they would most like to hear – whether neurologists, caregivers and family members of people living with Alzheimer’s, or team members for best-practice examples.
The end result included neurologist and Alzheimer’s specialists’ perspectives for two of the sessions; fortunately, we were blessed with a group of personable, energetic and passionate presenters, so each session produced a lot of interaction and questions from the audience. Making sure your presenters are enthusiastic and able to transmit that enthusiasm to those listening is important for any event, but it’s almost mandatory in a virtual environment.
Another tip that we’d offer is to include an unexpected but relevant addition to your event to surprise attendees and maintain their interest. We did this in the form of a digital illustrator who sat in on the first day’s sessions, producing sketches of each session’s content, and then presented the illustrations back to the audience on the second day. Aside from providing a very creative way to summarise the first day’s discussions for attendees, those illustrations will now be used as a follow-up to produce an infographic tracing a patient’s journey through their condition and the team’s goals to help improve this. A short break for a team scavenger hunt – finding every day items around their homes in the fastest time – also added a very enjoyable element to the second day.
Make it personal!
Prior to the meeting, attendees were asked if they’d be willing to share country-specific experiences at the event (nine agreed) and their personal experiences with the disease (four were willing). We also asked employees to provide a 10-second video clip of themselves stating a pledge they wanted to make for the future – either patient-focused or within the business. These clips were compiled into a video shown at the start and end of the event, and individually hosted on an internal team platform (which we also completely rebranded and reformatted in preparation for the meeting).
Some presentations used videos and photo montages to tell very emotional stories. These poignant personal narratives, of parents and grandparents who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, demonstrated the real passion that this team has to keep patients at the heart of every discussion (and made both the clients and our team shed a few tears!), especially during a meeting otherwise quite focused on expertise and strategy.
Lessons and recommendations
At the end of the meeting, we circulated an evaluation survey to determine what had worked well and identify areas where we could improve future events. We were pleased to discover that all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the meeting had met their expectations in terms of content, was well organised, and the sessions were relevant and useful. Encouragingly, many felt that the virtual format was as effective as if the meeting had been face-to-face, a positive step for the new world we live in.
Our recommendations for similar virtual healthcare events would include sharing more best-practice examples from internal employees, including more time for Q&A sessions and giving plenty of emphasis to the patient and caregiver voice. As the organiser, we would also advise having more sessions that are shorter in length, with more frequent breaks in between (even if only for a few minutes), to allow the audience to refresh and maintain their concentration levels.
And finally, as anyone who’s been working remotely for several months now will tell you, anticipate technology not always working in the way you had planned and try to come up with an alternative for when it does… and when that happens, above all else, keep calm!
Collectively we’ve never cared about our health as much as we do now. Over the past few months we’ve come to analyse every cough and headache, scroll obsessively though epidemiology statistics and sign off emails “stay healthy”. But the news cycle, which now rarely deviates from COVID-19 coverage, has swallowed up opportunities for raising awareness of other health conditions.
Awareness days, weeks and months are a key time to spotlight certain conditions and disease; research and patient support organisations can fundraise, patients can share their experiences of living with a condition and information on signs and symptoms is shared widely to promote early diagnosis.
Research from the University of Oregon shows that early Breast Cancer Awareness Months resulted in diagnoses spiking every November after October events, however this effect only lasted for a few years. Other objectives for campaigns are notoriously hard to pin down. Whether you’re counting the number of people who may have been reached via news media circulations or social media impressions, it’s difficult to gauge the impact of your activities. While campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge have been successful in bringing little-known diseases to public consciousness, these have proven to be the exception rather than the rule.
Forgoing quantity for quality
The most tangible way to demonstrate wide-ranging impact of a campaign has been through media coverage. Placements in print publications and radio and television spots have been able to guarantee an audience of thousands, if not millions. But right now, unless a story is centred on COVID or is COVID-adjacent, it simply won’t run.
In accepting that “raising awareness” isn’t a feasible measure of success, it’s important to consider how best to support the patient community. Social distancing has had a wide-ranging effect across the care continuum; halting clinical trials, impeding the manufacturing and distribution of medicine and limiting the care that many people are receiving.
By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, industry can reassure patients that our commitment to care is unwavering. Organisations have invested in creating COVID-19 resources that cover everything from the practicalities of travelling to care centres to emotional support during periods of isolation. Sharing content that resonates during a difficult time will offer a sense of continuity and solidarity to patients and their caregivers.
Taking it online
While we’re all spending our time glued to the internet, it can be difficult to cut through the noise. This is where you can benefit from a targeted approach.
Google and YouTube offer functionality that ensures your content gets in front of people looking for it. Allocating some of the budget earmarked for novelty pins on boosting carefully created content will result in more meaningful engagement with the patient community. Even without paid promotion, you can increase visibility by optimising your content through simple SEO techniques like utilising effective keywords and spending time on your meta description.
On social platforms too, small investments in promoting content can start conversations and build relationships online. Here it helps to know your audience well and set your targeting parameters carefully. The opposite of this advice remains true, however. If your resources don’t offer a benefit to the community, liking or sharing third-party content would be more appropriate at this time.
Just remember that social media is designed to start conversations and right now people have a lot of questions. While standardised response matrixes can be a quick and effective tool in the ‘normal’ world. During a crisis, a more personalised and empathetic response can make a world of difference.
So, is there space for disease awareness campaigns right now?
Yes. May, which previously represented a key opportunity for diseases as varied as cystic fibrosis, bladder cancer, lupus, and Huntington’s disease, has morphed into “COVID-19 Awareness Month”. The domination of one disease has come at the detriment of many others, and at a time when patient communities need more support than ever.
We have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with patient communities and our approach needs to be careful and considered. As in most areas of life, there is a ‘new normal’ when it comes to disease awareness campaigns, and this will continue long after lockdown is lifted.
Clinical trials are the engine room that powers our ability to deliver new treatment options to patients. The rigorous testing and resulting data that help us understand how new treatments work are what propels our industry forward.
But the engine room has flipped a switch. Governments have brought in various measures to reduce the number of COVID-19 infections and to help health systems cope with related pressures. The impact of these measures, compounded by pressures on supply chains, coupled with new recommendations from regulators on managing clinical trials, as well as companies’ own internal reprioritisations, have created a perfect storm in R&D. Hundreds of trials have been affected—including delays and disruptions to ongoing trials and cancellations or revisions to planned ones—and more changes are expected.
Furthermore, many healthcare providers have been pulled in to support critical care needs or at-risk patients, leaving less time and resources for clinical trials. This leaves patients with other conditions at risk of being left behind. With many patients unable—or unwilling—to visit clinics, uptake of telemedicine is flourishing, which is a positive step forward, but also creates its own set of challenges in data collection. Nonetheless, increased adoption of telemedicine, real-world evidence practices, and different types of outcomes could help recalibrate perceptions of acceptable—and approvable—trial results.
But in the meantime, delays to data availability—combined with medical conferences postponing and/or moving to virtual formats—is requiring many companies to rewrite their congress and publication strategies. We need to take new approaches in determining how, when and where to share data with target audiences, whilst ensuring timely and transparent communications. In addition to changing the playbook of how we communicate with those approving, prescribing or taking medications, we also need to keep advocacy groups, investors and internal colleagues informed of changing plans, particularly as launch timings may be delayed.
It is apparent the pandemic will have a far-reaching impact on clinical trials, which will ripple out to all areas of our industry.
Our immediate focus should be on protecting the integrity of ongoing trials and ensuring study participants know about changes to trials and how we are protecting their safety. In the medium term, we will have new opportunities to spark greater creativity in communicating results, and hopefully new best practices in trial design and regulatory requirements. In the longer-term, there will be an R&D pipeline that looks quite different from today’s. Amidst all this change, adaptability will be key.
Madano is part of AVENIR GLOBAL, a powerhouse firm of specialist healthcare communications agencies. We have combined our deep experience and expertise to craft a curated selection of resources on the impact of COVID-19 on the clinical trial space, from a multidisciplinary perspective. With our new Ripple Effect website, we hope to enable you to make informed decisions across different functions and within your companies as the situation develops. Content on the site will constantly evolve to stay ahead of the ever-changing environment, so please do check back regularly. Click here to explore the Ripple Effect site.
For further information the impact of COVID-19 on clinical trials and what this means for your organisation, please contact Katy Compton-Bishop, Head of Healthcare, or Reghu Venkatesan, Head of Global Healthcare.
Sunday 8 March was International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year’s campaign theme was #EachforEqual, promoting the message that we can all actively choose to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women’s achievements.” With this in mind, members from each of our practices have highlighted inspirational women from different backgrounds and fields that have made huge impacts to our world as we know it.
Margaret Calver – Kat Dominiak (Creative)
Female designers have had a huge impact throughout the history of design and their works are engrained in our everyday lives. It isn’t a surprise that historically the male-dominated graphic design industry hasn’t always had the best reputation for gender equality. However, female designers have played an important role in establishing graphic design as we know it today.
Did you know Margaret Calver’s work has helped to save hundreds of thousands of lives in the UK? Her very simple and easy to understand graphic language is on every single road sign and signpost across the entire country. She helps you get safely to work, school or home. Margaret is a typographer and graphic designer mainly known for her collaborative work with Jock Kinnir on the design of Britain’s roads – she’s a creative icon that had a huge impact on the design industry.
“With talent, dedication, and creativity in spades, women are – and always have been – killing it in graphic design.” – Rebecca Gross
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw – Elisha Raut (Insights)
You might have heard of the term intersectionality somewhere in the stratosphere. Maybe it’s because you’re engaged in critical race theory, or because you once eavesdropped on a pretentious and overly jargonated conversation at a LEON (just me?), or perhaps somewhere in between. In a reductive nutshell, it’s the idea that a person’s lived experience is contingent upon several overlapping axes of their identity, and it’s a foundational concept that was developed approximately 30 years ago by lawyer, professor, philosopher, and theorist, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
While the inception of the term was mostly within the context of legal advocacy, where discrimination regarding sex and discrimination regarding race were treated as mutually exclusive entities, it has now pervaded many areas of academic and everyday discourse.
While Crenshaw’s past achievements could span novels, she remains consistently active in educating the masses, not just through academic avenues, but also as a public speaker. Many of her highly engaging and thought-provoking talks are available on YouTube.
Although the term intersectionality has entered the everyday vocabulary of many people who may be characterised as, and sorry in advance for using this term, “woke”, it has also faced criticism from the anti-woke crowd. This is the main reason her continual educational efforts are still invaluable: in the information age, we can (fortunately and unfortunately) still believe whatever we want, whether it is justifiable and evidenced, or not.
Rosalind Franklin – George Mitchell (Healthcare)
Science is supposed to be paving the way for the future and yet, when it comes to gender equality, it is stuck in the past. At present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and they continue to be overlooked and undervalued in a male-dominated field. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Rosalind Franklin, a chemist and x-ray crystallographer who, in May 1952, captured an image that would quite literally change the DNA of biological and healthcare research.
Franklin’s seemingly uninspiring and blurry ‘Photo 51’ would lead Watson and Crick to discover the DNA double helix, for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Since then, we have sequenced our genome, increased our understanding of genetic disease and even learned how to edit our DNA.
Franklin died in April 1958 from ovarian cancer, possibly caused by exposure to the very x-rays which led to her discovery, something for which she was not recognised until the years following her death. With the Nobel Committee still unwilling to award posthumous prizes, Franklin remains one of the greatest unsung heroes in the history of biology and healthcare research.
Admiral Grace Hopper – Ben Gascoyne (Technology)
While the typical tech sector stereotype is male-led, you should know that some of its earliest and most influential innovators were talented and inspirational women.
That includes Grace Hopper, an American mathematician who began her career in computer science as World War 2 began. Working with the very first computers throughout the 1950s, she pioneered the development of programming languages that were based on natural languages, such as English, instead of abstract mathematical symbols.
That may seem obvious now, but was met with resistance at the time. Delivering her vision for computing made programming more accessible for everyone who followed her and paved the way for the tech giants you know today, like Microsoft and Apple.
Somehow, alongside a hugely successful career in computing, Grace Hopper found the time to rise to the rank of Admiral in the US Naval Reserve. Admiral Hopper passed away in 1992, but today, social enterprises such as the fantastic Stemettes are making sure that girls across the UK can follow in her footsteps and are inspired and empowered to take up STEM careers, including in the tech sector.
Mary Prince – Hoda Awad (Energy and Environment)
Mary Prince was a courageous woman who helped to change Britain as we know it. She was an enslaved woman who campaigned in the 1800s for abolition.
In 1829, Mary was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament, arguing for her human right to freedom. She was also the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography, which was a key part of the abolitionist campaign in Britain. It was during that very same year that her peers in the abolitionist movement introduced a bill proposing that any slaves must be freed.
Mary was an inspiring woman who invented political activism almost 100 years before other more well-known movements began to gain traction, such as the Suffragettes.
With modern society becoming increasingly competitive and divided, it is more important than ever that we champion and communicate the achievements of women. We have a shared responsibility to remove barriers and create opportunities so that, regardless of gender, anyone can fulfil their potential. By working together towards gender equality and providing women and girls around the world with heroes and role models, we can inspire the next generation and create an environment from which we can all benefit.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.