Pharmas assemble! Up and away! Or something

It's easy to pick on the pharma and biotech companies and paint them as heartless, money-grubbing opportunists. But the truth is a bit more complex, and both the public and government need to update the way they look at things.

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To me, the players in the pharma/biotech markets are kind of like DC Comics’ Justice League—or maybe Marvel’s the Avengers, which has less overwhelming goody-goody vibes and a little bit of dysfunction at times within the ranks. (I did warn you a few issues ago my geekdom would begin to show).
There are the heavy hitters like Wonder Woman, Superman and the Hulk, which to me are Big Pharma. And then you have the technical and intellectual prowess of Batman or Iron Man, which evokes for me life-sciences research in academia and research institutes. And then, in between, the mid-size and smaller pharma/biotech firms that represent important and more numerous—but less-stellar—characters like Blue Beetle, Aquaman, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and more.
Of course, in the comics world, heroes are often rich to begin with or they nobly fit in volunteer crimefighting in their free time (hello, Spider-Man!). In the real world, academic institutions need funding and companies need profits. And it’s here where I think too many people want life-sciences operations to be superheroes instead of real operations.
So, I often cringe when I see people posting online or overhear them talking about how atrocious the costs of medicines are today. How the pharma companies are ripping us off. They don’t understand the exorbitant costs of R&D and the rigors of the approval process—nor how many drugs never get a chance to be sold but still cost their companies millions upon millions of dollars.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an unfettered market kind of guy. I believe in things like a reasonable (for the worker and the company) minimum wage. I believe that corporations, holding much of the wealth, should pay taxes just like their employees do. As you’ll see, Peter Kissinger has a different view on that in his commentary this month, but you’ll read that soon enough.
The point is that I don’t agree with the trash-talking of even Big Pharma companies that paints them as heartless gougers. I don’t like how I get emails from a certain advocacy group that almost never seems to have a nice thing to say about drugs and seems squarely focused on the negatives—and I’m a guy who happily worked for environmental and educational advocacy groups for several years.
And while Peter and I differ on wages and taxes, let me show I’m not so liberal as you might think when I say the FDA is too tentative when it comes to approving drugs. I’m going to say that we need new therapeutics faster, and instead of fretting over every risk, we need physicians to teach their patients about side effects better and we need patients to do more to understand the risks and benefits of taking a drug. I think we need to bar lawsuits against pharmas and biotechs over side effects unless the company may have covered up evidence of that side effect. More informed consent; less litigation.
Heck, I recently read a news release about a meta-analysis involving more than 80,000 patients and published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology that says only a small number of symptomatic side effects reported in patients taking statins are actually attributable to the statin drugs themselves. Turns out that while scrutiny is on the risks of prescribing statins, it may be that almost all the side effects reported in these trials “occurred anyway when patients were administered placebo,” as the investigators for the study wrote.
Bottom line: Regardless of my opening paragraph, players in the life-sciences market aren’t superheroes—though they can be at times. They also aren’t supervillains. It’s time to make sure they can do the work we need them to do and stop blindly criticizing or unnecessarily fettering them.

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