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Opinion: Pharma companies reassure a skittish populace

By Carol Levine, CEO

The recent joint statement by nine pharmaceutical companies that science would trump political expediency when it comes to the safety and efficacy of their vaccine candidates for COVID-19 should be viewed as a sea change for an industry continually struggling to improve its own reputation.

In my view their message was squarely directed to the American public to bolster trust in the regulatory process that is historically and notoriously known for demanding rigorous scientific data to support drug approvals. As much as this seems to be an American story tied into a pre-election slug fest, those of us north of the border should also pay attention. Few times in our history have we had reason to question the safety and efficacy of drugs or therapeutics, and this is not by accident. The process used by health regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada has been based on science, immune from outside pressures. At least that is the way it is supposed to be.

This understanding made me question why these companies felt the need to go on record, as a collective, despite being competitors racing to the finish line to find the highly sought-after vaccine for COVID-19.

My conclusion was that these pharmaceutical companies understood that people were skeptical and afraid of shortcuts in approving a vaccine. So, they got out ahead of it to assure us that the drugs they bring to market will be both safe and effective.

It was a smart move, knowing that people are afraid that shortcuts will be taken to find a vaccine before Nov. 3. Afraid that the clinical trials will not reflect the diversity of the population. Afraid that the trials will not be large enough to provide the evidence needed. But the greatest fear might just be a lack of confidence in agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). I would argue that despite some fails through the years, that the level of trust in these regulatory bodies and public health authorities has been without reproach. Now, not so much.

Just this week the CDA made the third major revision to its information and guidelines for the transmission of the virus since May. The FDA also announced this week that it is looking to impose stricter guidelines for the approval of a coronavirus vaccine. Whether pharma’s lead on the safety message had any influence on these decisions, remains to be seen. What we do know according to a recent Axios-Ipsos poll is that the number of Americans who said they would get the coronavirus vaccine as soon as its available has plummeted, with 60 per cent of respondents saying they won’t take the vaccine as soon as its available.

Shamelessly, I am a fan of CNN’s medical news team and enjoy the way stalwarts like Dr. Sanjay Gupta present the gloomy facts on the rising incidence of COVID-19 infection with clarity and humanity. I can pick up on Dr. Gupta’s frustration with what should be common sense behaviors. When he said “we’re screwed” when commenting on the disregard for distancing and masks, he becomes one of the most believable authorities. It appears that the White House feels the same way, as they have already identified Sanjay Gupta as a key influencer for a future PR campaign to promote vaccine use.

Turning back to reputation and the importance of having an unshakable trust in how life-saving therapeutics are brought to market, Sanjay Gupta does not carry the torch alone. In an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, stated concern for something he never in his lifetime felt he would question – namely the possible politicization of key health regulators and authorities.

Which makes the joint pledge by the nine pharma companies something quite special. To me their message reads – despite the uncertainties: you can trust us to deliver a product that is safe and effective and of the same high quality that you have known us to do before; you can trust us not be pressured by politics, money or ego – we will do what is right; have confidence that we are all in this together.

Drug discovery and development is a long and manic game fraught with highs and many disappointments. Pharmaceutical companies are often severely criticized for excessive profits, but if you dig deeper you may appreciate what it takes to bring an innovative drug to market that addresses an unmet medical need.

As a consultant on reputation management and crisis communications, I would have never imagined that the global COVID-19 pandemic could get us to rethink how we feel about the pharmaceutical industry. Congratulations to the nine signatories for taking that first step. They are: Pfizer, Merck, Novavax, Sanofi, GSK, Moderna, BioNTec, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca.