WASHINGTON — The coronavirus outbreak could be the pharmaceutical industry’s ticket to saving its reputation in Washington.
Already, the fervid crusade to contain the epidemic refocused a White House meeting centered on high drug prices onto the industry’s ostensibly more commendable work to develop vaccines and therapies that target the virus. And there are early indications the industry is leveraging the shift in the conversation: new ads from the industry trade group PhRMA, featured recently in several D.C. health policy newsletters, implore readers to “See how the industry is helping.”
It comes just months after a September poll showed the pharmaceutical industry is the most loathed in America, and as more and more lawmakers signal an interest in once-radical policies to rein in drug companies’ pricing tactics.
Capitalizing on the coronavirus crisis could help the industry reshape how Americans view the drug industry before Washington gins up sufficient political support for any of those changes, especially if drug makers don’t over promise and don’t price their eventual vaccines out of reach, communications experts told STAT.
“It’s like a reset button for them,” said Pallavi Kumar, a communications professor at American University who previously did communications for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. “In times of crisis people want heros, even if those heroes were villains in the past.”
Both of the trade groups that represent the industry were quick to emphasize they don’t consider the new communications strategy an opportunistic one. Representatives for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, BIO, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, PhRMA, said many of the research programs being leveraged to develop a vaccine for coronavirus were being pursued long before the public became captivated by the outbreak. Nevertheless, representatives for both organizations said they hope the coronavirus helps recast the way Americans see the drug industry.
“These kinds of unfortunate incidents really do put a spotlight on what our companies do every single solitary day,” said Rich Masters, executive vice president of public affairs for BIO. “To the extent that this helps educate the American public on what it is we are doing … that could be helpful in the overall debate about the reputation of our industry.”
It has been an especially tough couple of years for the drug industry in Washington. Although few policy changes have yet been enacted, lawmakers are increasingly and vocally criticizing the drug industry, including members of the Republican party who previously defended it. Lawmakers are eager to approve some version of drug pricing reform by the end of the year, and Democrats have promised the issue will be a top priority if they take back the presidency in 2020.
The widespread anger has put drug makers on the defensive for the bulk of the Trump presidency. In fact, they faced a president who accused them of “getting away with murder” during his first press conference as president-elect. In the months following, they faced tongue lashings in congressional hearings and new legislation being penned seemingly daily both on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country.
PhRMA spent a record $29 million in 2019 defending itself against these attacks.
The advent of the coronavirus gives the drug industry the opportunity to talk about something other than drug prices. There’s perhaps no clearer example than PhRMA’s swift shift in tone in their online ads.
For months, PhRMA has flooded D.C. publications with ads that push blame for high prices onto drug middlemen or lament President Trump’s signature drug pricing plan, which they’ve dubbed “foreign price setting.” But ads over the last week have taken a far less defensive tone.
“Leading PhRMA members are applying their scientific expertise to research and develop potential therapies to combat the novel coronavirus and are working around the clock to provide aid where it’s needed most,” an ad in an Axios newsletter states. “Explore our efforts,” reads another in a Politico newsletter.
The early signs of a shift in tone from the Trump administration were readily apparent during a Monday White House meeting when Trump praised drug makers as “geniuses.”
The newfound focus on coronavirus also allows drug makers to largely defend the status quo. In interviews with STAT, representatives for PhRMA and BIO and other drug industry lobbyists insisted that the coronavirus demonstrates that sweeping legislation would hamstring their ability to fight future outbreaks.
“This is a clear example of what is at stake in this conversation and why it is important that we continue to have a robust biopharmaceutical industry in the US that can tackle these types of challenges,” said PhRMA’s Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Robert Zirkelbach.
“It can help us remind people that there’s nowhere else in the world people are looking for this cure. They’re looking to the United States and there is a reason for that,” added BIO’s Masters.
Drug makers insist that their ability to respond swiftly to the coronavirus demonstrates that their labs are continually pushing the boundaries of science, risking investments to advance medicine, even when there’s no clear payoff.
“The only reason we have medicines to test right now is because companies have made significant investments over many years developing treatments to address public health threats, such as H1N1, Ebola and other coronaviruses. They are putting at risk significant resources to develop, test and manufacture new treatments and vaccines without knowing whether they will actually work for patients,” Zirkelbach said.
It’s an ironic turn of events, given that PhRMA has spent millions on a multi-year campaign, dubbed “Go Boldly,” that seeks to highlight the work of its researchers. Coronavirus seems to have driven home the value of the drug industry’s work in a way the campaign’s glitzy TV ads didn’t.
A number of companies are already at work on treatments and vaccines for coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19.
Gilead is already in the midst of clinical trials to see if its drug remdesivir can cure coronavirus. GlaxoSmithKline is also providing some of its technology to a Chinese biotech company working on a vaccine, and Johnson & Johnson is working with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on treatments for patients already infected.
BIO says it has more than 20 companies pursuing coronavirus vaccines, therapeutics, or other products. Members like Moderna Therapeutics and Inovio are in the early stages of developing their own vaccines.
Drug industry critics, however, are unlikely to be impressed by pharma’s goodwill. Already, Democrats are insisting that drug makers should make any coronavirus treatment affordable. And the advocacy group Public Citizen has already criticized the drug industry for neglecting coronaviruses and vaccines more generally for more lucrative projects.
It’s also still too early to tell too whether Trump will be wooed by drug makers’ vaccine efforts and abandon his tough talk toward pharma, but drug industry defenders say it’s worth a shot.
“In a political season, telling politicians to put down really potent but incorrect and dangerous talking points may or may not be a fantasy,” said Peter Pitts, president of Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, which receives drug industry funding. “But it’s a battle worth fighting.”