President Trump, a known critic of Big Pharma, summoned 10 executives from various pharmaceutical companies to the White House in early March to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. He wanted the industry’s help in creating a vaccine to prevent the disease and therapies to fight it at a time when neither existed.
Trump’s behavior mimics that of most Americans. In times of medical crisis, we turn to those who can design, develop, and manufacture new medicines and ask, “What can Big Pharma discover to help save lives?”
This event reminded me of something similar that happened in the 1940s. With the U.S. in the early stages of World War II, President Roosevelt called on companies to find ways to produce a miracle drug — penicillin — that had the potential to save the lives of U.S. soldiers in the battlefield. Although penicillin had been shown to be a potent antibiotic, it could be made only in small quantities. To be truly of value on the battlefield and beyond, it needed to be mass-produced. Nineteen companies heeded Roosevelt’s request. Pfizer, at that time a fermentation company, was ultimately able to develop a remarkable process to meet the government’s needs. By D-Day, 90% of the penicillin shipped to the war front was made by Pfizer.
Now, nearly 70 years later, another such war (as the president calls it) is underway and a number of drug companies, big and small, have launched numerous initiatives to fight Covid-19. I find it ironic that rather than getting praise for investing millions of R&D dollars to find a vaccine or therapy for the disease, the industry is being viewed with suspicion if not outright scorn.
Doctors Without Borders urged global leaders to seize patents on any privately developed coronavirus treatments to “ensure availability, reduce prices and save more lives.” Brazilian lawmakers proposed compulsory licensing for Covid-19 products. An op-ed in the LA Times alleges that “the list price of a vaccine could be set stratospherically high regardless of actual R&D costs.” Another op-ed, this one in STAT, worries that “by helping quench the Covid-19 pandemic, pharma will have won the lottery. Its ship will have come in with a package bearing the Golden Ticket.”
The industry has only just begun its work to find solutions and is already being attacked on potential costs. That’s crazy. There is no evidence that price gouging or profiteering is going to occur. J&J has committed an enormous amount of money to its Covid-19 efforts and its CEO, Alex Gorsky, has made it clear that that the company has no intention of making any profits from any vaccine that is eventually brought to patients. The company has even taken the unusual step of televising a weekly 30-minute show to teach the public about all that goes in to creating such a vaccine.
One promising therapeutic in development is remdesivir, Gilead’s antiviral drug. Gilead’s CEO, Daniel O’Day, has announced that he company is providing 1.5 million doses of remdesivir at no cost to patients for compassionate use, expanded access, and then broader distribution following approval.
And beyond R&D programs, many companies have stepped up in a big way by donating millions for Covid-19 disaster relief including J&J ($50 million), Pfizer ($40 million), and AbbVie ($35 million).
The attacks on the industry are coming at a time when, ironically, Big Pharma’s corporate reputation is on the rise. Results from a recent survey of patients’ attitudes toward the pharmaceutical industry were more positive (46%) than they have been in nearly a decade, higher than for other sectors of health care. A recent Harris Poll showed that consumers’ impression of Big Pharma have grown 40% more positive than before the pandemic began.
There’s no question that the industry has a way to go in improving its reputation. But it has made strides over the past few years and the Covid-19 pandemic is giving it a chance to show the true value it provides to society. I find it hard to believe that the biotech and pharmaceutical industries will squander this opportunity by trying to profit from this crisis.
John LaMattina is a director of PureTech Health, a Boston-based biotech company; author of “Devalued and Distrusted: Can the Pharmaceutical Industry Restore its Broken Image?” (Wiley, 2013); and former president of global R&D at Pfizer.