Will COVID-19 Turn the Tide on Innovation for Pharma Companies?

April 8, 2020

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The current COVID-19 pandemic has launched huge humanitarian waves across the globe, uniting the general public, healthcare providers, governments and industry around one common goal – to beat the virus. Even as countries begin easing the restrictive containment measures that govern our daily lives, we can be certain that the post-COVID-19 world will look radically different from the one we have left behind. Global leaders will be at the forefront of the assessment, tackling key questions: could this have been prevented, should finding a treatment have happened sooner and would there have been a more efficient way to limit the disease’s spread?

Research and innovation, led by the pharmaceutical industry, will be at the forefront of these conversations. However, it will bust the debate on the sustainability of our existing innovation eco-system wide open. We need to ask if we can afford for science and innovation to be undermined by an ever-changing public opinion and by policymakers who are compelled to follow it.

In recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has developed a somewhat unsavoury reputation. Exponential media coverage of both pricing debates and the opioid crisis has created a distrust of the industry, at a time when we are living in an overall era of suspicion towards large corporations, big institutions and above all, facts. We just have to look at the rapid rise in the anti-vaccination movement to understand how these dynamics can come together in a dangerous cocktail of scientific disregard.

The industry’s negative public perception and criticism from NGOs have triggered the current political atmosphere in the European arena which has made intellectual property (IP) incentives a legislative target in recent years. Reducing IP rights is viewed as a move that undermines innovation by the pharmaceutical industry. On the other hand, it’s praised as an attempt to lower prices by NGOs – albeit a short-sighted one. The introduction of the EU’s Supplementary Protection Certificate (SPC) Manufacturing waiver for both exports and stockpiling was therefore highly criticised by the industry, but welcomed by many NGOs as a move towards equality.

Fast-forward a couple of years after the ‘lost’ SPC debate, the pharmaceutical industry is now being criticised for its lack of innovation by the same society that formerly considered innovation a dirty word for profit-driven. A FleishmanHillard TRUE Global Intelligence COVID-19 study, released on April 8, 2020, revealed that 67% of respondents believe that pharmaceutical companies are ‘very important’ in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. This ranks the role of the industry second only to that of national governments in the crisis response. Facing an unprecedented pandemic, we need diagnostics, treatment and above all, a vaccine. Innovation is difficult in the best of circumstances, with regulatory burdens and the tedious nature of clinical trials, including for vaccine development. We need an environment that empowers industry to provide solutions for society in the best and worst of times.

We can expect draconian style measures to continue in some form for as long as we can’t control transmission and treatment. We will have a long and difficult wait, losing many loved ones along the way, if our best solution to the crisis at hand is herd immunity. Even this approach remains a huge bet given that at present there is no proof we become immune to the virus once we have been infected and recovered.

The debate around innovation in the context of a pandemic puts forward a very important question – can innovation be turned on and off by demand or should we as a society consistently foster a stronger European research and innovation eco-system to protect our European way of life, and most importantly, our citizens? Can we afford to allow our opinions to fluctuate between the need for a robust innovation framework and the pressure to keep prices down? Such a mindset switch might be best demonstrated by President Donald Trump, who has started calling Pharma bosses ‘geniuses’ (reference to innovation amidst COVID-19), when previously he’d accused the same groups of ‘getting away with murder’ (reference to price).

To conclude, COVID-19 is demonstrating the value of innovation to society in tangible terms. A global pandemic puts everyone’s health and livelihoods at risk, demonstrating the absolute necessity of honing our ability to innovate. In the post-COVID-19 era, private and public sectors will need to come together and evaluate their responses to the crisis in order to understand how Europe’s innovation framework provides an environment where science can thrive. With multiple public commitments to fight the virus being made by almost every single pharmaceutical company, this is a huge opportunity for the industry to demonstrate its value to society and look to change the path of the research and innovation debate.