Can Big Pharma deliver a cure to Covid-19?

Cantillon: Coronavirus may offer drug firms and researchers chance of redemption

Pharma plant: all eyes are  on the sector to deliver a Covid-19 cure and vaccine within impossible time constraints.

Pharma plant: all eyes are on the sector to deliver a Covid-19 cure and vaccine within impossible time constraints.

 

Coronavirus has been an unremitting disaster for most businesses. Even if you are not shut down, you’re dislocated.

Access to existing customers is awkward where it is possible at all, while selling to new ones is next to impossible in the absence of face-to-face meetings. Supply chains are in a mess and the chances are that there is little demand anyway as most people react to the uncertainty of their current position by cutting inventories or personal spending.

But, for one much maligned corner of the business world, for all its disruption, coronavirus has been an opportunity.

Three months ago, Big Pharma couldn’t buy a positive headline. Held almost solely to account for the inability of stretched government health budgets to meet the demand, it only made things worse for itself with some high-profile price gouging on long-established medicines.

Living in fear

Now the tables have turned. A once-in-a-century pandemic has much of the world living in fear and in lockdown. In the absence of any treatment, all eyes turn expectantly to Big Pharma to deliver a cure and a vaccine within impossible time constraints. Reputation restored, Big Pharma is seen as the white knight that can deliver us from Covid-19.

The sector is under intense pressure to do so but this illustrates precisely the conundrum. Billions will be spent investigating different options. Most won’t work and those that do might still lose billions of dollars unless they are first or best to market.

Co-operative model

The crisis can give Big Pharma a chance, finally, to get a hearing on the real cost of innovation and the need for reward to justify the risk. But if that window is to last beyond the current crisis, Big Pharma must learn from the past.

Drug development is an intensely competitive and costly business. There is, as yet, no co-operative model that can guarantee the necessary resources. However, transparency is essential.

For far too long, pharma has been unnecessarily and deliberately opaque about costs and about how it markets its products. There have been too many recurring questions about the completeness of data and some of the company it keeps.

Big pharma is far from being the only problem in health but it is one of them. The industry needs to take this second chance to show that it can operate differently.

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