A quality agreement is a contract between two parties that defines the role of each in the manufacture, packaging, testing, holding, and/or distribution of product to the marketplace. It is through this document that both the sponsor (contract giver) and the contractor (contract receiver) know such things as who is responsible for investigating complaints; who is responsible for initiating a recall; what is the expectation for completing investigations; who is responsible for releasing material; and who are the key contacts within each organization when a quality issue arises. While there are many elements to a robust quality agreement, I feel the most important is defining the role of each company in communicating change. The quality agreement should be very clear as to the types of changes that require notification (this would apply to contractor-driven changes as well as those initiated by the sponsor), the timeframes for communicating and implementing changes, and the required approvals for change. The amount of detail that goes into a quality agreement will be dependent on the companies involved (mainly on the sponsor’s requirements), the type of work being performed and the relationship between the sponsor and the contractor.
It is a requirement in Chapter 7 of Volume 4 of the EU regulations that there be a written contract in place defining the responsibilities of each party when contracting out services. In the U.S., while there is no explicit requirement for a quality agreement on the pharma side, multiple sections of 21CFR Part 211 and Part 820 (for medical devices) make references to the need for having a document that clearly delineates responsibilities. Also, I would hesitate to tell a regulator when they ask for it that there is no requirement to have a quality agreement…good luck with that one. Your organization should have multiple templates for quality agreements since each type of agreement can and should be different. You will not require the same things of a contract manufacturer that you will of a contract warehouse or a contract laboratory, nor should you. I would have (separate) templates in my organization for use with contract manufacturers; contract packagers; contract warehouse and distribution centers; and contract laboratories. I would also have templates for my active ingredient (API) suppliers; primary printed component suppliers (labels, inserts, outserts); packaging components (bottles and caps); and excipient suppliers. Finally, for my lower risk suppliers, I would have a document in place (not as extensive as a formal quality agreement) that discusses notification of change. It is important to note that the quality agreement should be in place prior to any third-party manufacturing or releasing any material on behalf of your company. This should be part of your due diligence work when identifying a potential new third party.
Note: there are organizations out there that will include quality requirements within their supply/purchase agreements. I caution against using one of these because often, supply/purchase agreements are meant to dictate different terms between two parties than those laid out in a quality agreement. Your expectations should be detailed in the quality agreement, not simply veiled references to quality (as is the case with most supply/purchase agreements that I have seen with quality requirements in them). I will say, though, that should you decide within your organization not to have separate agreements and discuss quality in the supply/purchase agreement, be sure that the quality department gets the appropriate buy-in. Also, if your company decides to have a separate quality agreement but still makes references to quality in the supply/purchasing agreement, make sure the expectations in the two documents are the same and do not contradict each other. The safest way to do this is to have the supply/purchase agreement simply point to the quality agreement for quality-related matters. So now that we have decided all our contract third parties, our API, excipient, package component, and printed component suppliers will require formal quality agreements, let’s talk about the major components of these documents.
Let’s review the elements of a good quality agreement. Remember, the quality agreement is designed to provide for the roles of the sponsor and the contractor. Keeping that in mind, the better quality agreements I have seen include some form of the following 24 elements. Remember, each template you have for each type of agreement will have many of these elements and some will not have them all. Your organization should consider the applicability of these elements when drafting a quality agreement.
When entering into any agreement of this sort, there are always things to look out for. Make sure none of the requirements in your quality agreement conflict with any language or requirements of other agreements your company may have in place with the particular third party/supplier. Be wary of making very broad and overarching statements, such as a requirement that you (the sponsor) review and approve ALL changes at the third party/supplier for your product. Often this is not only unnecessary but also impractical. Your audits of the third party/supplier should indicate how changes are handled within their quality system. Be certain that whatever topics you have discussed in the body of the agreement are in concert with your responsibility matrix. Stay away from vague language and avoid phrases like timely, may, and should; these will most certainly lead to problems in the future. Do not require that 15 people approve the agreement when in reality three or four signatures may be all you need. This will only slow down the review and approval process. Finally, it is critical that if you have a third party/supplier provide materials/services to multiple sites, each site signs off on the agreement.
I will start by saying that any third party who refuses to sign your agreement should likely not be a third party providing material to your company. These agreements are critical to the relationship and quality of product you will be receiving. The notion of an ‘alternate means of communicating quality expectations’ should be reserved for suppliers identified as ‘non-critical.’ For suppliers where pharma is not their main business or your volumes are very low, don't push it. I am a firm believer that the only thing you really MUST know about are changes that could affect your material. In these circumstances, be very clear with the supplier of the changes you want to be notified of and memorialize this requirement in a ‘Change Agreement’ where the supplier knows when they need to notify you and you are aware and comfortable with what you will be notified of. A good reference document for the types of changes you may require notification for is the IPEC Significant Change Guide.
Quality agreements are an essential piece of the relationship between your company and your third parties and suppliers. These documents should be robust and in the case of non-critical excipients, sensible. Be sure that your program for quality agreements includes a review cycle (typically annually with your product APR/PQR) as well as provisions for making changes during the interim period (between review cycles).