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How COVID-19 Has Changed People’s Perception of Pharma: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

By Thomas Dove


“I’ve got Moderna.” I said to a friend.

“Oh, that one’s good, isn’t it? I’ve got AstraZeneca.”

Another friend piped up in the conversation.

“That’s the dodgy one, isn’t it? I’ve had Pfizer, both shots – I didn’t feel a thing. Now I feel like I can get back on with my life!”

Over the weekend, I met up with some old friends from school and this was the conversation we had over a pint and a catch-up.

It dawned on me how mad the whole conversation was…Who’d have thought my friends (one who works in Fintech M&A and another who works for the MOD) and I would talk about pharma companies like that ordering a pint of beer.

The pharmaceutical industry has always struggled with its reputation or “brand awareness”. Despite the incredible advances of medicine in the last decade, its history of lawsuits, perceived secrecy of clinical trial data, and the disparity that can sometimes be found between different classes in society has maintained a cloud of controversy over pharma’s head.

But in the past year, the world has never been so engaged in what it takes to make drugs and medicine. The global pandemic has created an opportunity to put pharma on a pedestal like never before; appearing daily on news channels, delivering vaccines in record timing and providing the solution to COVID-19.

Despite their major contribution in the battle towards ending the pandemic, it appears controversy and mistrust will continue to surround the industry. Which is such a shame.

The rocky road of the pharma industry

My intention with this article is not to talk negatively about the pharma industry. But I think to understand the full story and their role in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to set the scene and understand its past and how it can best position itself in the future.

It’s not groundbreaking news to say that the pharmaceutical industry has struggled with its reputation, again, which is surprising as the whole industry is focused on improving or saving lives. It’s an industry that has a direct impact on our quality of life and health so understandably it has high expectations and comes under the line of fire a lot.

With headlines about high drug prices, lawsuits being filed and challenges with prescription drug abuse in the media, it’s no surprise that the pharma industry’s reputation is significantly below other industries like automotive, technology and retail.

The US in particular has a long history of distrusting big pharma. Many Americans feel exploited by drug pricing that causes a disparity between the rich and the poor – the poor being unable to access the drugs they so desperately need.

As you would expect, this controversy is hard to come back from, no matter how good your PR team is.

Our only hope

But then on 11th March 2020, the world as we knew it changed – the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

Suddenly, all eyes were on pharma. Not because its name was being dragged through the press like history would dictate, but instead with a glimmer of hope.

If anyone was going to save the day, it would be pharma.

The pandemic has created an opportunity to ensure that pharma is at front of the mind and most importantly, an opportunity for the industry to prove itself and rectify its reputation.

For the past year, pharma has been working tirelessly to develop and distribute vaccines worldwide – a major feat in itself.

We’ve also witnessed companies forming unusual and rare alliances with their rivals to combine their skillsets. Pfizer and BioNTech, Sanofi and Novartis, Sanofi and GSK, Merck and Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Lonza to name a few.

Not only does this ensure that the vaccines are developed and distributed as quickly as possible (a win for everyone) but it also helps to improve pharma’s image.

With big, multi-billion-dollar companies putting aside their differences and collaborating for the greater good, pharma’s reputation has been restored as an industry that cares about saving lives. The pandemic has created an opportunity for companies to show the more human side of their business.

When AstraZeneca and Oxford University announced that their vaccine was safe, effective, cheap and would be supplied to the world at cost, they were celebrated for working pro-bono. This is in stark contrast to the corporate greed narrative embedded in pharma.

Reputation is a fragile thing

But then all of a sudden, a game-changing vaccine – proven to be safe, effective and most importantly, developed at breakneck speed – was torn apart by politicians and the press.

That vaccine, developed and manufactured by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca has received publicity for all of the wrong reasons. “The dodgy one” as my friend so graciously put it.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the story but here’s a quick recap anyway.

  • It all started after AstraZeneca announced it would aim to deliver only 40% of the vaccine doses it loosely promised the EU in the first quarter of 2021 because of manufacturing problems at its European facilities.
  • EU politicians insisted AstraZeneca must stick to its contract.
  • German health regulators questioned the validity of the data in over 65s.
  • In retaliation to a lack of supply, Italy blocked a shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines bound for Australia.
  • Denmark was the first EU country to stop the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine following reports of life-threatening blood clots after vaccination; other European countries followed in pursuit.
  • The European Medicines Agency concluded the vaccine is “safe and effective” which prompted the vaccine rollout in Europe to resume.
  • But then, the US NIAID warned that AstraZeneca may have used “outdated” data that provides an “incomplete” picture of the vaccine’s effectiveness.
  • The European Medicines Agency confirmed a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots but stated that the risk is low and due to the lack of other alternatives in Europe, the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine should continue.
  • Despite this news, many countries (including the UK) have advised against giving young people the AstraZeneca vaccine.
  • The EU took AstraZeneca to court and are currently in the midst of a legal battle.

Wow, what a whirlwind of a story. It sounds like a Hollywood film, right? But yes, all of that happened in a matter of months.

AstraZeneca: From Saviour to Villain

It’s important to note that AstraZeneca is a perfectly well-established and authoritative figure in the life sciences industry. Their specialism though? Not vaccines, but Oncology, Cardiovascular Diseases and Respiratory issues.

Could this perhaps be how their reputation was tarnished into appearing incompetent and dishonest? Were they simply out of their depth?

Or is this just another example of how data can be taken out of context and twisted?

Or was it just a political move?

Who knows to be honest?

It seems to me that AstraZeneca is quite literally saving millions of lives on a daily basis but aren’t receiving the credit or gratitude they deserve. It’s a huge shame that we’re witnessing a life-saving vaccine being dragged through the mud.

On another note, did anyone complain when other AstraZeneca products saved the lives of their family members? From Tagrisso to treat non-small-cell lung carcinomas to Symbicort, an inhaler used in the treatment of asthma, where was the negativity then?

Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters are all alive today because of the awe-inspiring science of this organisation and its people.

While more attention on the industry is a good thing, this elevation means that the stakes are higher. If you make one wrong move or reveal your weaknesses, then pharma companies must be prepared to fight to clear their name.

Reputation is a fickle thing

While I’ve focused a lot on AstraZeneca in this article, it’s only because they are the most recent and obvious example of how pharma’s reputation can be changed virtually overnight.

I’d say that pharma’s reputation is in a much better place than it was 24 months ago or even a decade ago. I’ve enjoyed witnessing pharma taking centre stage and more people hearing about the incredibly amazing and innovative medicines that they are working on.

We owe our thanks to the industry, now, more than ever. I for one am incredibly grateful for everything they’re doing to save so many lives.

But sadly I still think we’re a long way away from pharma’s reputation rising up the ranks to overtake the likes of the automotive, technology and retail industries.


For more life science insights…

* Fraser Dove International is a talent consultancy operating exclusively across the life sciences industry. While our roots lie in executive search, we provide more than the traditional recruitment services. Uniquely placed within the market, we have been providing cutting-edge talent solutions and insight to organisations at all stages of their journey – from start-up to established leaders – since 2013.

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