COVID-19 and Big Pharma: Tracking the Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has harmed people and organizations around the world. For the pharmaceutical industry, however, it has been a more contradictory experience. On the one hand, the pandemic has interrupted supply chains, diminished contact with customers, and threatened stronger government regulation. On the other hand, the virus has created new opportunities for windfall profits, deregulatory initiatives and winning back public trust. A few recent articles illustrate the range of responses. 


Big Pharma’s Covid-19 Profiteers   

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi portrayed Big Pharma’s Covid-19 Profiteers. He describes how Daniel O’Day, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company Gilead, observed that while the company would be justified in charging $48,000  per dose of remdesivir since it saved 4 days of hospitalization on average, Gilead had decided “to price remdesivir well below this value.” –only $3,120 per patient.  Meanwhile, writes Taibbi, Gilead’s own price for governments around the world — everyone except American private insurers — was $2,340 per treatment. And as one expert noted, “If the drug doesn’t impact mortality, and only shortens recovery time, we figure a course of treatment is worth about $310.” Taibbi also described the success of the pharmaceutical industry in using its vaunted lobbying power to reject limits on its intellectual property rights despite federal support for their research and added liability protections for their new COVID-19 discoveries. 

COVID-19 and the Future of Drug Marketing

In JAMA Forum, Genevieve Kanter notes that COVID-19 has thrown the standard drug marketing playbook of free dinners and clinic drop-ins into disarray. “As clinics and hospitals, as well as drug and device firms, regroup,” she writes, “ policy makers, physicians, and patients should be intentional in re-establishing rules for doctors’ engagement with industry.”  Increased use of smartphone and tablet apps to engage physicians through e-detailing may increase the risks of unwanted collection of data on physicians’ private information and phone activity, she notes. She advises that providers who “engage with sales reps and industry content through their smart devices should be vigilant of the permissions they grant to these industry-supported apps. And patients who are too intimidated while in the examination room to ask their doctors about their ties to drug companies can lean on the safe distance of email to get the information they need.”

Up Is Down — Pharmaceutical Industry Caution vs. Federal Acceleration of Covid-19 Vaccine Approval

Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, Jerry Avorn and Aaron Kesselheim  note that nine pharmaceutical company leaders took the unprecedented step of stating that they would refuse to apply for approval of a COVID-19 vaccine until adequate trial data are available. In the face of growing public concern that the federal government might push forward release of a COVID-19 vaccine despite inadequate evidence, the industry seemed to reverse the usual roles of government emphasizing caution and the industry speed. The industry leaders who signed the pledge, wrote the authors, acknowledged that in a country already suspicious of both vaccines and drug makers, rushed vaccine approval followed by unanticipated consequences could severely damage both their credibility and the population’s faith in immunization — not to mention sales of a COVID-19 and other vaccines.