Pharma Stakeholder Sentiment: Back to Square One?

Is it fair to push out the core purpose of an important process, or rather a mission, unfairly? Whether we like it or not, it happened that way, over a period of time.

Way back on December 01, 1950, George W. Merck (President and Chairman Merck & Co., Inc.1925-1957), epitomized the core purpose of the drug innovation process. This is something, which apparently was possible only for him to articulate exactly the way he did.

On that day, while addressing the students and the faculty at the Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, George Merck said: “We try to remember that medicine is for the patient. We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”

To many of us, it may sound more as an altruistic statement, and not really coming from a businessman who wants to excel in the financial performance of the organization. Interestingly, that was not the case, either. Merck removed any possible ambiguity in his statement by stating categorically: “In doing this, it will be as a business­ man associated with that area of the chemical industry which serves chiefly the worlds of medicine and pharmacy.”

In this article, I shall deliberate on whether or not the core purpose of drug innovation, as articulated by George Merck in 1950 has been pushed out of the mind of the stakeholders for good.

Management Guru – Peter Drucker’s similar observation:

It is worthwhile to recapitulate at this stage that around the same time, the Management Guru – Peter Drucker also made a similar observation, which is relevant even today. He said: “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

Interestingly, when the word ‘customer’ is replaced with ‘patients’, George W. Merck’s iconic statement fits so well even in the realm of business management, including drugs and pharmaceuticals.

Signs of the core purpose of new drug discovery getting pushed out:

The core purpose of new drug innovation in pharma business, as articulated by a top industry pioneer – ‘Medicine is for the patient and not for the profits’, was pushed out eventually, regardless of its reasons. Today’s core purpose of the same process has seemingly become just the opposite of that – ‘Medicine is only for the patient who can afford it – to maximize profit.’

This change in the core purpose was visible in a large number of instances. For example, when the then Bayer CEO Marijn Dekkers reportedly said: ‘Our cancer drug is for rich westerners, not poor Indians.’  However, his exact wordings were “we did not develop this product for the Indian market, let’s be honest. We developed this product for Western patients who can afford this product, quite honestly.” If so,the question that comes up: why then Bayer fought so hard and spent so much of money, efforts and time to keep selling this specific product in India – exclusively?

In any case, this statement from the highest echelon of one of the top global pharma players is a contentious one, especially against George Merck’s articulation, or even Peter Drucker’s for that matter, on the same. By the way, Dekkers made this commentat the Financial Times Global Pharmaceutical & Biotech Conference in December in December 2013.

A wind of change?

The hope for a wind of change flickered when in an interview, Andrew Witty,the erstwhile global CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), signaled a totally contrasting view of his company. Witty said: “GSK is committed to offering all its new drugs in India at affordable prices.”

Much prior to this, on March 14, 2013 he told a conference on healthcare in London that: “It’s not unrealistic to expect that new innovation ought to be priced at or below, in some cases, the prices that have pre-existed them.” He further expressed: “The pharmaceutical industry should be able to charge less for new drugs in future by passing on efficiencies in research and development to its customers.”

Witty era is also over now. He retired from GSK at the age of around 53 on March 31, 2017. Perhaps his refreshing patient-centric thoughts would also not find any takers within the industry. Nonetheless, in March 2018, the same issue resurfaced in an interesting article, followed by a few other related developments.

Call for socializing drug development?

The issue, which is not just limited to high prices for new patented drugs, is much broader. An interesting article titled, “Developing drugs wasn’t always about profit, and it shouldn’t be now”, was published in Quartz- a news website owned by Atlantic Media, brings to the fore the same key point, yet again. It makes some profound observations, such as socializing drug development. The word ‘socializing’ may not be quite acceptable to many, though. Nevertheless, it raises some critical issues worth pondering over, such as:

  • Faith in the power of money pervades our modern medical system. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t evil (usually). They just choose to make the most profitable drugs, not the drugs of greatest value to society.
  • For example, despite antimicrobial resistance being a global threat, pharma companies have largely abandoned new antibiotic development on the eminently sensible principle that they are money-losers. Promising narrow-spectrum antibiotics – agents that precisely target pathogens and spare “good” bacteria - languish in development limbo because there is no hope that they might churn as much profit as several other drugs.

It’s high time, I reckon, to adequately address the dire need for a reliable supply of the medicines that make a vibrant modern society possible. All stakeholders, including the pharma industry, globally, would require putting their heads together in charting out a clear and time bound pathway for its effective resolution, soon. Otherwise, sheer gravity and the complexity of the situation may prompt the policy makers to move towards ‘socializing drug development,’ much to the dismay of many of us.

Hospitals creating nonprofit generic drug company:

On January 18, 2018, The New York Times (NYT), published an article titled “Fed Up With Drug Companies, Hospitals Decide to Start Their Own,” highlighted a novel initiative to address the prevailing situation, in their own way, without depending on others.

It reported, for many years, several hospital administrations have been expressing frustration when essential drugs like heart medicines have become scarce, or when prices have skyrocketed because investors manipulated the market. Now, about 300 of the country’s largest hospital systems are taking an aggressive step to combat the problem. They plan to go into the drug business themselves, in a move that appears to be the first on this scale.

‘The idea is to directly challenge the host of industry players who have capitalized on certain markets, buying up monopolies of old, off-patent drugs and then sharply raising prices, stoking public outrage’, the article elaborates.

‘Price of medications has soared, so have pharma profits’:

‘Big Pharma is jacking up prices for one reason – because it can,’ says a CNN Article, published on April 04, 2018. The article further emphasizes: “As the price of medications has soared, so have pharmaceutical company profits. Total sales revenue for top brand-name drugs jumped by almost $8.5 billion over the last five years. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that 67% of drug manufacturers boosted their annual profit margins between 2006 and 2015 – with profit margins up to 20% for some companies in certain years.”

It further writes, “Not only have pharmaceutical companies reaped outsized profits from these price hikes, so have their CEOs. According to a USA Today analysis, the median compensation package for biotech and pharmaceutical CEOs in the Standard & Poor’s 500 was 71% higher than the median compensation for S&P 500 executives in all industries in 2015.”

Conclusion:

This is happening the world over. But its degree varies. In those countries where there are drug price regulators, only a small percentage of the total pharma market by value comes under price regulation, the rest of the products enjoy virtually free pricing freedom.

Would this ground situation change on its own any time soon? There is no specific answer to this question, yet. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be none around in the pharma industry today with the stature and articulated vision like George Merck. He started from the very basic. Drawing the ‘square one’, he clearly defined the core purpose of discovery, manufacturing and marketing of medicines. Today’s pharma industry, by and large, seems to be charting in other newly drawn squares. Maximizing profit is now considered a key objective of achieving the core purpose – and not an outcome of achieving the core purpose of pharma business.

However, there are some very early signs of several stakeholders’ sentiment changing in this regard. Are they moving back to the basic – square one?

From the chronicles of the past several years on this issue, pharma industry does not seem to be on the same page with those stakeholders, just yet. If they do, a humongous health worry of a vast majority of the global population could be effectively addressed, as many believe.

The reverberations of this sentiment, though rather faint, can be felt in many countries, including the United States, and not just in the developing world, such as India.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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