A few weeks ago, while flipping through The Economist, I came across yet another article describing the latest exploits of the small biopharmaceutical company, the Institute for One World Health. And as always, there, in the middle of the page, was a photograph of Dr. Victoria Hale, company founder and CEO, beaming with pride over the work her company was doing to address the orphan diseases of the developing world. But at the same time I admired the efforts of this nonprofit company, I must admit to feeling a pang of jealousy at the sheer volume of positive press it had garnered in its few years of operation.
Before I go any further, let me state for the record, that I do truly admire Dr. Hale and her vision to develop drugs for the developing world, largely from the ashes of compounds left behind and donated by other pharmaceutical firms. In my opinion, her efforts rank up there with groups like Medicins Sans Frontieres. Heck, in my other life, I lead the public and media relations programs for a public-good open-source bioinformatics research program, so I definitely understand the goals and challenges that Dr. Hale and her gang face. But for all my heartfelt admiration, there is the ever-present gleam of the green-eyed monster in the background. Damned if I can manage to get my group into the pages of The Economist.
And I'm likely not alone. I am confident that in every pharmaceutical and biotech company around the world, there are marketing and PR teams scratching their collective heads at how to get the same media coverage. Oh sure, they get press, but it is rarely positive and instead generally characterizes the companies as price-gougers who are only looking to the bottom line. Every recall, every clinical trial, scrutinized for signs of collusion and corruption. I'm not sure that "Big Tobacco" had it this bad (which begs the question, was there a "Little Tobacco").
Each of these companies, in one way or another, has participated in a public-good program, whether in providing free or discount pharmaceuticals to the disadvantaged or establishing research centers that specifically target the challenges of the developing world. And yet, in many cases, these efforts are typically met with cynicism or outright derision. Like the petroleum and chemical industries before them, the pharmaceutical industry's good deeds are met with suspicion that they are trying to hide something or make up for a past misdeed. Few people seem willing to give the industry the doubt and believe that these companies really are trying to make the world a better place.
So Dr. Hale, forgive us if we seem to mutter to ourselves with each press clipping that you and the Institute for One World Health receive. We really are happy to see you succeed…we're just a little envious of your PR winfall.
Randall C Willis