Pharma as Partner, Not Punching Bag

COVID-19 is showing (again) that the biopharmaceutical industry isn't the villain the left makes it out to be.
March 17, 2020
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After listening to politicians—particularly those on the left—relentlessly vilify biopharmaceuticals companies, it was a welcome contrast to see President Trump at the White House last week recognizing the private sector as a critical, invaluable partner in our national efforts to combat COVID-19.

I’ve long championed the essential role of industry in driving promising, but preliminary, science into transformational medicines. Writing over a decade ago with the late Dr. Tom Stossel, we called out the coterie of reliably reflexive critics we termed the pharmascolds—a group whose numbers, and influence, have dramatically expanded in the ensuing years.

Today, most correct-thinking academics—not to mention nearly every politician from the Warren-ish side of the spectrum—dutifully critique the biopharmaceutical industry as greedy and craven. This is happening even as more and more of the most talented faculty members decamp for the private sector (sometimes startups, other times, established companies). Why? Because they want to participate more directly in the pragmatic implementation of exciting science.

In addition to my own career in and around biopharma R&D, I’ve recently been afforded an unusually personal look into the role of industry in the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife, also a physician-scientist, is a senior executive at Gilead and has been working relentlessly to evaluate whether remdesivir, an anti-viral therapy the company originally developed for Ebola—it wasn’t especially effective—might prove more useful against the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. While anecdotal data, as widely reported, may be encouraging, robust clinical trials are required, and my wife and her colleagues are working literally day and night in order to deliver a clear answer.

While Gilead’s medicine may be closest to the clinical applicability, they are hardly alone: Companies across the industry are racing to develop and evaluate potential treatments, often as part of consortia with academics, which is a win-win proposition. Meanwhile, other companies are working on potential vaccines: The innovative biotech Moderna seems to be out in front, reportedly using a proprietary artificial intelligence-based approach to select the part of the virus that will most effectively goose our immune system. The first subject in the first Moderna clinical trial was just dosed on Monday.

Back at Gilead, the all-in effort to evaluate remdesivir has meant that our three daughters have seen a little less of their mom for the last several months—and when they do see her, she’s often interrupted by an urgent call or text. But they are proud of the work she’s doing and it’s hard to think of a more compelling role model for our girls.

What they find strange—and I find maddening—is when we turn on the television, as we did for Sunday night’s Democratic debate—and hear politicians such as Bernie Sanders offering little but contempt for the honorable, difficult, and demanding work private-sector drug developers are doing every day.

This isn’t to say that either companies or universities should be above scrutiny. Escalating drug prices and the inability of some patients who need medicines—and other health services—to be able to afford them are serious problems.

But habitually casting drug companies as evil villains is not a serious response. It’s little more than virtue signaling, that diminishes the work and denigrates the dedication of the thousands of Americans who, like my wife, show up at biopharmaceutical companies each day committed to the difficult task of turning complex science into safe and effective medicines.

We can do better.

David Shaywitz

David Shaywitz, a physician-scientist, is the founder of Astounding HealthTech, a Silicon Valley advisory service; an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and a Lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.