Big pharma’s big chance

Good morning.

Last year, when Gallup pollsters asked Americans what industry they liked least, the pharmaceutical industry took top prize. The reason wasn’t hard to fathom. Persistent publicity over pricing scandals— Martin Shkreli and Valeant took top honors there—as well as the pill-pushing behind the opioid scandal, had poisoned the industry in the public mind.

The coronavirus pandemic now gives that industry a chance to redeem itself. There are fervent efforts underway at virtually every pharma company to address two key issues that will determine the course of the disease. The first is the need for drugs or therapies to help those being killed at an alarming rate. For all the focus on ventilators, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo revealed this week that they only prevent death for 20% of the people using them. We need better treatments in the field soon. The second is the race to develop a vaccine, which ultimately will be necessary to allow society to return to some sense of normalcy.

I’ve written in this space about the impressive work going on at Johnson & Johnson and Regeneron. (You can find podcast interviews with leaders of both, here.) My colleague Susie Gharib also recently interviewed Paul Hudson, who took over the top job at Sanofi last year. Hudson collaborates with Regeneron on a drug called Kevzara, originally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which is now in testing with more than 200 COVID-19 patients. Hudson said the effort to find therapies and vaccines has enlivened Sanofi. “I can feel the purpose-driven nature, the camaraderie and coming together of the company.  It is really something like we have never seen before.” Susie also had an interview yesterday with the CEO of Bayer, Werner Baumann, who is ramping up production of its drug Resochin to treat the disease.

I also spoke yesterday with Bob Kramer, CEO of Emergent Bio Solutions Inc., which just announced a partnership with the U.S. government to expedite development of a therapy that involves taking plasma from people who have already been infected and developed antibodies to the disease. He hopes to bring it to trial for critically ill COVID-19 sufferers by early summer. I asked Kramer what the economic model for this therapy was. He said he hadn’t thought about it.

“This is in our sweet spot. This is what we do,” Kramer said. “Our company has a history of making short term investments when we think we can leverage our technology and knowhow to help public health. Most likely in the longer term there will be a payout, but right now we are not worried about it.”  

It’s these efforts that ultimately will stem the tide of death brought on by COVID-19. And in doing so, they also may change our view of a besmirched industry.

More news below. And apologies for referring this week to the spotlight the pandemic is shining on the trials of “working mothers.” Numerous readers rightly corrected me. I should have referred to “working parents.”

More news below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

[email protected]

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