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Big Bad Pharma?

The ongoing Ebola outbreak seems to have highlighted the pharmaceutical industry’s continuing reputation problem. While some commentators have praised drug makers’ swift response (1), others have blamed companies for not developing a vaccine earlier, accusing them of putting profits ahead of patients (2).

Public opinion still puts pharma well below technology, retail and energy sectors (3), and the only healthcare field less trusted by patient advocacy groups are for-profit health insurers (4). Why are pharma companies – who manufacture life-saving drugs – so unpopular?

Certainly, a number of high-profile scandals, involving corruption, cover-ups and dodgy deals, have seriously damaged the industry’s reputation. But perhaps the most pervasive criticism arises from the tension between profits and people, business and society. Specifically, in the case of Ebola, newspaper columnists, academics and even the WHO have attacked the pharmaceutical industry for failing to devote sufficient resources to finding a vaccine.

However, for defenders of the industry, these accusations seem wide of the mark. Firstly, pharma companies have been conducting work in this area – both Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline have vaccines under development, for example. Secondly, while Ebola is unquestionably a terrible disease, until now outbreaks have been small, affecting at most a few hundred people. Until this year, fewer people were dying of Ebola than seasonal flu. Meanwhile, diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDs and TB kill millions every year. Even if pharma didn’t have to consider profits, is it really surprising that only a few companies have chosen to focus on Ebola?

I believe the majority of pharma industry employees are very aware of its special role in society. Medicines are not simply products – and the companies that make them expect to be held to a higher standard because of that. No-one is trying to claim perfection. Companies walk a fine line between their duty to shareholders and their duty to society as a whole; it’s no revelation that the tireless pursuit of profit can lead to shocking acts of greed and corruption.

But it’s important not to lose sight of what the industry has achieved. Breakthroughs made by industry scientists have helped to revolutionize modern medicine, and you only have to look at the latest Access to Medicines Index to see that big pharma companies are doing more every year to improve healthcare in the developing world.

The senior executives and researchers I speak with all have something in common: they are proud of the part they have played in moving medicine forward – they are proud to be medicine makers – and we are proud to celebrate their achievements.

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Charlotte Barker

I’d like to know what you think – what is your organization doing to avoid sex bias in preclinical and clinical studies? What are your main challenges? Contact me at: [email protected]

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  1. M. Matthews, “Since The Ebola Outbreak, Who‘s Bad-Mouthin‘ Drug Companies Now?”, 11th September 2014,
  2. D. Munro, “Ebola: While Big Pharma Slept”, 14th September 2014,
  3. Harris Interactive, “The Harris Poll 2013 RQ Summary Report”, February 2013,
  4. PatientView, “The Corporate Reputation of Pharma – The Patient Perspective”, June 2014,
About the Author
Charlotte Barker

As an Editor at Texere, I’m working closely with our audience to create vibrant, engaging content that reflects the hard work and passion that goes into bringing new medicines to market. I got my start in biomedical publishing as a commissioning editor for healthcare journals and have spent my career covering everything from early-stage research to clinical medicine, so I know my way around. And I can’t think of a more interesting, challenging or important area to be working in.

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