Covid-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures have caused significant disruptions to clinical trials and accelerated the use of virtual trials. Companies that had not considered this model before have had no option but to rapidly implement new technologies and procedures to maintain business continuity. Over the past 18 months, many sponsors have enhanced their virtual trial capabilities, while many leading clinical research organisations (CROs) have expanded their services in response to growing demand for these services.

In line with increased demand for alternatives to traditional trials during the pandemic, the number of jobs related to virtual trials has increased over the past 18 months. Using a range of keywords related to virtual trials, an analysis of GlobalData’s Job Analytics Database found around 1,000 jobs from pharmaceutical companies or CROs from July 2019 to July 2021. Data show an increase from 30 posted jobs in the third quarter of 2019 to 160 posted jobs in the same quarter of last year, with further increases to more than 200 posted jobs in the first two quarters of this year (Figure 1).

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Depending on the main keywords used in the title or description of a job posting, jobs were grouped into ‘Decentralised/Virtual/Remote/Siteless/Hybrid’ or ‘eCOA/ePRO/eConsent/eDiary’. In total, posted jobs mentioning just e-clinical technologies, such as eCOA or ePRO, were more common (78%) than those mentioning terms such as ‘virtual’ or ‘decentralised’ (22%). Despite this, the number of posted jobs containing terms such as ‘virtual’ or ‘decentralised’ rose last year, increasing from 12 in the first quarter of the year to around 60 in the first two quarters of this year, likely as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to transition trials to fully virtual models.

More than 60% of the jobs found between July 2019 and July 2021 were posted by pharmaceutical companies. CROs such as PRA Health Sciences, Parexel and PPD posted a higher proportion of jobs containing terms such as ‘virtual’ or ‘decentralised’. PRA Health Sciences posted more than 200 related jobs since July 2019, with the majority seen over the past 12 months. Bristol-Myers Squibb and AstraZeneca are leading pharmaceutical companies in terms of job postings in this space.

The shift toward virtual trials was already underway before the Covid-19 pandemic began. The pandemic has significantly accelerated their adoption, however, and research shows that many companies will continue to use virtual trials after the pandemic. For example, a June 2020 survey of 150 GlobalData Pharma clients and prospects, including CROs, contract and development manufacturing organisations (CDMOs), pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, revealed that around a third of companies had been using virtual trials before the pandemic. Almost 70% of those who had never used virtual trials were now planning on using them.

This increased use of virtual trials will lead to increased demand for expertise in areas such as wearables, remote monitoring devices and analysis of electronically collected data. One potential barrier to hiring in the virtual trial field, however, is a shortage of skills. Attracting qualified and experienced workers to deploy Internet of Things (IoT) solutions and analyse resulting datasets in healthcare is a major issue for the healthcare ecosystem and is expected to constrain market growth. For example, in GlobalData’s State of the Biopharmaceutical Industry 2021 report, a lack of specific skills and talents was chosen by the highest proportion of respondents as the main barrier to digital transformation initiatives for organisations. The industry requires skills in digital, advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as a flexible and educated workforce.

At present, many pharmaceutical companies and sponsors are not fully ready to utilise the data generated by connected medical devices. Recruiting top digital talent is a priority across IoT and connected devices and will be essential for the validation and utilisation of remote technologies in clinical trials.