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.
That was until the world was hit by COVID-19.
Since the outbreak, confidence that scientists will act in the public’s best interest has grown, as has trust in the healthcare industry as a whole.
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.” Furthermore, it is important that the public understands that scientific information may continue to evolve, particularly when the situation is moving as quickly as it is with COVID-19. For more on this topic, please see: A case for communicating uncertainty.
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. For more on the importance of transparency, please see: What can we learn about effective healthcare comms from the current vaccine media frenzy?
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 and/or the political pressures in this pandemic, which is blurring lines between politics and public health.
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. (For more on ensuring global access, please see: Is the world ready for a COVID-19 vaccine?)
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.
To discuss how to manage corporate communications during the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact us.