America’s public health emergency expired on May 11, shortly after the World Health Organization’s declaration. This comes as the pharmaceutical industry continues to pour resources into developing new treatments. There are more than 1,000 ongoing drug and vaccine trials targeting Covid-19, according to GlobalData’s Clinical Trials Database.
Despite the industry’s continued investment in antiviral drug and vaccine development, the term ‘big pharma’, instead of connoting lifesaving medical advancements, is sinister and has come to symbolize a sector under fire. Several factors ranging from pricing controversies, and drug safety issues, to vaccine skeptics have led to the pharmaceutical industry having a reputation that equals that of big oil and big tobacco. It’s time that we challenge that unfair comparison.
The Business of Saving Lives
Pharmaceutical companies have played a crucial role in developing and producing life-saving drugs, vaccines, and treatments that have significantly improved public health and saved countless lives. Life expectancy in the US increased by an estimated 3.3 years between 1990 and 2015. 35%-44% of that increase is attributable to the advancements in new biopharmaceutical drugs.
The pandemic demonstrated an unprecedented potential for collaboration between competitors in the pharmaceutical industry, providers, payors, regulatory bodies, and the government. Were it not for the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, millions more people could have died or suffered the impacts of coronavirus disease. Instead, we witnessed rapid clinical trials and approvals of several highly effective vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and others. This extraordinary achievement was made possible by national and international industry partnerships between healthcare professionals, researchers, government, and pharma companies that did not know whether they would succeed, let alone make a profit from these initiatives.
The federal government, FDA, and private businesses shrunk the timeline to get vaccines to the public – without skipping any vital steps in development, testing, and safety – condensing a typically 73-month vaccine approval process to just 14 months through public-private partnerships and the sharing of collective knowledge by hundreds of experts.
It is astonishing to think about the number of people who worked together to end the pandemic.
Medical Cost Offsets
Although prescription drugs account for around 18 percent of healthcare costs, high drug prices have been a major point of contention. Prices for medications have drawn widespread public outrage and media attention, highlighting concerns about the affordability and accessibility of life-saving drugs.
However, pharmaceutical innovation can also lead to substantial savings as drugs often replace even more expensive medical treatments. Known as ‘offset effects’, the developments of new drugs resulted in a decrease of 25% in hospital use in Canada in the period 2000-2009. One Canadian study found new drugs save an average of 4.7 times their cost in reduced medical expenditures.
With healthcare costs increasing for several reasons, the industry has the biggest opportunity to help reduce these costs through vaccines that prevent people from getting sick, medications that keep them out of hospitals, treatments that lead to fewer seniors in nursing homes, and fewer workers forced to rely on disability insurance.
Significant Economic Contribution
The pharmaceutical industry generates substantial economic growth and job opportunities. It contributes to local and national economies, fosters innovation, and supports research institutions and healthcare infrastructure.
The U.S. is home to some of the biggest pharma companies globally, and American consumers have access to the most advanced pharmaceutical products in the world. The biopharmaceutical industry contributes substantially to national, state, and local economies by employing more than 800,000 people and supporting approximately 3.2 million additional U.S. jobs across the supply base, as well as industry and worker spending. Altogether, the industry, directly and indirectly, supports more than 4 million US jobs.
The industry is a key employer of workers from STEM occupations, accounting for almost 40 percent of all biopharmaceutical industry jobs. Its overall contribution to US gross domestic product (GDP) is also substantial, with a total impact exceeding $625 billion, accounting for 3.2 percent of GDP.
The National Research Council (NRC) cites the capability to innovate as the most important determinant of economic growth and a nation’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st-century global economy. This underscores the importance and value of the pharmaceutical industry to our nation’s economic competitiveness, given the industry’s capacity to advance innovation.
We, pharmaceutical professionals, acknowledge that restoring trust is not an easy task, especially when “pharma bashing” makes for easy political talking points. The pharma industry can not continue to fulfill its mission- to save and improve lives - without public trust. It is our duty as leaders to learn from the past and propel our industry's reputation forward.
While the industry has been working on developing and producing life-saving drugs, vaccines, and treatments that have significantly improved public health and saved countless lives, its reputation has been significantly damaged by unfair attacks and the growing power of the anti-vaccine movement.
Big Pharma invests significant resources in research and development (R&D), conducting clinical trials, and discovering new drugs to address various diseases and conditions. This R&D effort contributes to scientific knowledge and medical innovation. These companies have also been instrumental in eradicating or significantly reducing the prevalence of serious diseases like smallpox and polio through the development of vaccines.
I am proud to have worked in the industry for almost 30 years and to recall the thousands of colleagues I know who are motivated at the start of every week by their commitment to reducing pain and suffering and eliminating diseases. Their passion also makes them the best ambassadors to help improve our reputation and restore public trust. I want to encourage all 800,000 members of our industry to get the message out there that we are committed to helping people live longer, healthier, and better lives. The future of our mission depends on it.