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From Villains to Heroes – BIG Pharma holds the key to normality

Happy New Year

Who are the Heroes?

Who have been the heroes in this pandemic? Obviously, healthcare workers, especially those in the frontline, a whole range of key workers – shop workers, transport staff, postal workers, delivery drivers, etc, all those who risked catching the virus as they tried to maintain some sort of normality for the rest of us. And they, as well as the rest of us, were often let down by politicians, who promised but could not deliver, even on basic supplies like personal protective equipment for health and care workers, or in many countries a workable track and test system that could help suppress and contain the virus.

However, in a year when almost everything went wrong, one thing has gone right – the emergence of vaccines for Covid-19, described by German Health Minister Jens Spahn as the “the decisive key to end this pandemic ... the key to getting our lives back".

Scientists and Pharma

Up there among the true heroes of the pandemic are the scientists who carried out the pioneering work on the vaccines and the pharma firms that supported and built on this work. And there are also the philanthropic organizations and individuals (including country singer Dolly Parton) who provided billions in financial backing. Their heroic efforts helped bring three vaccines to market in under a year when in normal circumstances it can take 5-10 years.

We cannot underestimate the part played by scientists in academia and small research companies like BioNTech, but the new vaccines would not have reached the market without the efforts of much-maligned Big Pharma. Only Big Pharma companies have the resources to carry out Phase III trials involving over 40,000 people. And to commit the investments to scale up manufacturing to produce many millions of doses, even ahead of any real proof that the vaccines would work.

Our heroes are usually seen as the small people fighting inequities in the system, while villains are portrayed as large powerful, profit-focused organisations. But without the profit-making ability and global reach of these players we would not now have the “key” to end this pandemic and help us get our lives back.

Critics Won Over

Even industry’s fiercest critics are being won over when they see how pharma companies have pulled together, co-operating with each other and with academia to find solutions to the pandemic. Ben Goldacre, who slammed the industry in his book ‘Bad Pharma – How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients’ is one such critic. Quoted in The Guardian newspaper earlier this month he says that research from his DataLab organisation at Oxford University into sharing of clinical trial data “has produced strong evidence that pharma is cleaning up its act much faster than academia, at least in some key areas in recent years”, and that “more than anything it shows once again that problems in science are about bad systems and incentives rather than bad people or bad organizations”.

Not All About Profits

Of course, there will still be those who see big pharma as villains not heroes, pointing to the potential profits from vaccines that could spell an end to the pandemic, and to the price of the first one to reach European and US markets – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, priced at around US$40 for the double dose. Morgan Stanley analysts estimate that the two companies could generate sales of almost US$13billion in 2021. However, it should be noted that Pfizer had decided to treat this as a commercial opportunity, turning down US government funding and investing around US$2 billion of its own funds.

And there are pharma companies that are reluctant to be seen to be profiting from a worldwide crisis, especially as they have received large amounts of external funding. AstraZeneca, for example, which is collaborating with Oxford University, has pledged to sell the vaccine to wealthier countries over the course of the pandemic at a price that just covers its costs (about US$6 for the double dose) and to make it available to low- and middle-income countries on a non-profit basis in perpetuity.

Huge Gamble

While the rewards may look attractive, especially if it turns out that repeated vaccinations may be needed on a regular basis, pharma firms are still taking a huge gamble. Pfizer could have a limited time to recoup its investment as increasing numbers of cheaper vaccines that are also easier to distribute and handle come on the market. There are already more than 50 anti-Covid vaccines in trials around the world, about 20 of which could come to market in the next two or three years. Competition is then likely to push down prices and profits.

Public Image

One gain for the pharma industry that cannot be underestimated is the boost to its public image as people begin to understand the part companies are playing, not just in fighting the coronavirus pandemic but in researching, developing and bringing to market life-saving medicines as well as vaccines to treat and prevent disease. Covid-19 has played a key role in reminding people of this.

Back in April 2020, Eli Lilly’s CEO Dave Ricks commented: “With the world in dire need of Covid-19 drugs and vaccines, the biopharmaceutical industry has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset its reputation”. With the approval and launch of the first vaccines less than a year later, that reset looks to be underway. Drug companies are usually cast as villains but they are now looking more like heroes.

I Wish You All the Compliments of the Season and a Safe, Healthy and Prosperous 2021


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