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Making a difference: Irish research firm’s response to Covid-19

Icon PLC mobilised its vaccine resources to address global threat posed by virus

Global clinical research organisation Icon PLC recently posted record net business wins of $990 million for the third quarter of the year. This was reflective of the company’s rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since February, the company has mobilised its vaccine resources to address the global threat posed by Covid-19, including its ability to conduct home-based trials to minimise infection. The company is also providing clinical monitoring and safety oversight on more than 100 Covid-19 trials around the world.

"It's been a strange year in some ways," says Icon chief financial officer Brendan Brennan. "It's one of the extraordinary things about clinical research that it's only in the last six months that people have begun to understand what it is about. It seems everyone is now an expert on phase-two and -three clinical trials."

Icon is one of the largest clinical research organisations in the world employing some 15,250 people in total. "We have about 5,032 in the EMEA region [Europe, Middle East and Africa] with 1,000 of them in Ireland, another 5,531 in North America, 826 in South America and around 3,855 in Asia, " says Brennan. "And we are very proud to be an indigenous Irish company set up by two guys in Ireland 30 years ago."


The company has been tracking Covid-19 since it first emerged in China almost a year ago. "Our Asian operation was keeping an eye of it at the beginning of the year in the same way as we had tracked SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] before. Our people there kept us informed of the spread of the disease and then we watched it arrive in Italy and spread throughout Europe and the world."


The main impact on an organisation like Icon was the closure of clinical facilities, such as hospitals and GP surgeries, to all but essential visits. These are the main sites for clinical trials and that naturally had a knock-on effect. “We have thousands of people who go out into the field to set up the trial sites, make sure everything is done properly, everything is recorded properly, that all documentation is completed correctly and so on,” Brennan says. “Everything we do revolves around the site. In the second quarter of the year lots of hospitals said there would be absolutely no visits from clinical research organisations. About two-thirds of our clinical research sites were effectively closed to us.”

But the trials had to continue, nevertheless. “We had to switch very quickly to doing things virtually. That wasn’t easy. The whole team responded exceptionally well. Some sites with electronic health records and so on allowed us to see the information we needed to see and the virtual approach worked nearly as well as the physical in those cases. But in some cases they don’t have digital systems and we have to rely on people taking pictures of documents with their phones and sending them over to us.”

Sites have been safely reopening since then. “Two-thirds of our sites are open again for site visits. The rest are managed virtually. Sites are continuing to gradually reopen.”


The company’s expertise and track record were important factors. “Trials can be very difficult but that is our bread and butter. You have to understand the nature of the disease and understand the nature of the patient you’re looking for. The selection of sites, the doctors and the hospitals that will participate is key. In a lot of clinical research, you are looking for patient cohorts that are hard to treat and hard to find. One of the most difficult things to do for some clinical trials is find the right patient cohort. We are experts at that because we are not just working for one company, we are working across the whole world in 94 offices in 40 countries.”

And quality is paramount. “Our company is populated by scientists and we are all perfectionists in relation to what we do.”

Brennan is particularly proud of the company’s work on vaccines. The Icon vaccine specialist team was awarded best clinical research organisation at the Vaccine Industry Excellence Awards at the World Vaccine Congress in October. This was the third time the Icon team won the award.

“We are very proud of those guys,” says Brennan. “They have been busting a gut during the year at a time when speed was of the essence. Making a difference for humanity is central to what we do at Icon and we are all hugely proud to be part of that.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times