The pandemic may finally do for the pharmaceutical industry what relentless TV advertising cannot: show off its power to innovate.
In August 2019, barely half a year before the world changed, the pharmaceutical industry was the most disliked business sector in America: 58% of those polled by Gallup had a negative perception of the industry, more than twice the share who viewed it favorably—giving drugmakers a net positive score of minus 31, the worst by far of any business sector in the country. For comparison, airlines and the legal profession had net positive scores of plus 19 and plus 5, respectively. Even the federal government (minus 27) had better ratings overall.
Enter the coronavirus. As much as the pandemic has devastated many industries, it has offered Big Pharma a chance to shine as never before, winning back the trust of a public infuriated with years of soaring drug prices. Will they seize the moment? The answer depends in large part on how fast drug and device makers make progress in three areas essential to beating back COVID-19. The first is in the realm of diagnostic tests that can identify not only who has the disease but also who’s no longer infectious and therefore safe to return to work. Second are therapies to shorten the disease course and lessen its severity—which will be important for reducing the burden on hospital ICUs and exhausted critical care teams. And third are vaccines: Without a safe and widely disseminated vaccine to confer immunity on a huge swath of the population, it’s hard to imagine life returning to something resembling “normal.”
Success in these three areas won’t put the pricing controversies to bed. As they strive for novel therapies and medical tools, pharma companies will have to balance the need to fund innovative projects and still satisfy a public (and perhaps regulators) demanding low- or no-cost drugs and devices to combat this plague. Still to be determined is what role health insurers and governments may play in all of this.