Big Pharma has a bad rep. And there are certainly valid reasons for that. Recent accounts of price gouging, particularly on common, life-saving drugs like insulin, have had consumers fuming. The cost of newer drugs is sky-high. And there have been an awful lot of drugs that were apparently sent to market too early, leading to a lot of dire side effects and drug recalls. Add to that the dubious practice of advertising prescription medications direct-to-consumer, and Big Pharma has abused the trust of the American people. The drugs they develop and sell may be – indeed, often are – beneficial and even life-saving, but that doesn’t seem to dissipate much of the cloud of bad feeling surrounding American pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Unfortunately, Big Pharma is likely going to be needed to help get us through the coronavirus crisis.
Sure, there are government agencies involved in the process of developing treatments and vaccines as well – the CDC, FDA, and NIH, to name a few. But even these institutes and organizations have been tainted by the dubious reputation of large drug companies. They are seen as in cahoots together, developing and testing drugs together, rushing them onto shelves and into doctors’ offices and hospitals, patenting the results, and pocketing the proceeds. Never mind whether that’s an accurate portrayal or not. That’s the public sentiment.
But where, exactly, do people believe that COVID-19 treatments and vaccines are going to come from, if not from Big Pharma and the various institutes? This is a novel virus, not likely to be much affected by drugs that already exist, though those should certainly be tried. Cures for other diseases have already been tested on COVID-19 and found wanting. Crackpot theories such as drinking bleach have made the rounds, with the potential to do great harm rather than help. Developing pharmaceuticals requires a huge investment of time and especially money. Big Pharma has to be big to work even as well as it does. So, yes, we should be looking to Big Pharma, if not directly for discovering a vaccine, at the very least for manufacturing and distributing it. Basically, there aren’t any mom-and-pop vaccine shops, biotech start-ups and upstarts notwithstanding.
The question then becomes, if and when Big Pharma does develop drugs and vaccines for COVID-19 (far from guaranteed – we still don’t have a vaccine for HIV/AIDS), will people be willing to use them?
Scientific literacy is pretty low in the US right now. People don’t understand how vaccines work. Of course, that isn’t entirely the fault of the US education system. For decades now, there has been a growing party of anti-vaxxers that don’t just not understand the science, but refuse to even consider it. And facts don’t matter to those whose minds are made up. Still, after all these years and the complete discrediting of the guy who faked the study, people believe that vital childhood vaccinations cause autism.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists. I don’t know how many people there are who actually believe that Bill Gates is a Bond-style supervillain living on a volcano island, petting a long-haired white cat, but there certainly is a vocal subset of people who proclaim that, even should a vaccine for COVID-19 be produced, they will not use it, for fear of being microchipped, or submitting to the New World Order, or the Number of the Beast, or something. There may not be many people that far out on the limb, but their fervent influence has the potential to disrupt the herd immunity that ought to develop after the proper use of a new, effective vaccine.
So, the question becomes, if and when a treatment or vaccine becomes available, will people be smart enough to avail themselves of it? Or will the lack of trust in Big Pharma, the medical establishment, and medical science itself mean that sufferers will deny themselves treatment and go right on spreading the deadly disease?
I suppose it in part depends on how horrendous the death toll has been by the time that a vaccine exists, and how many family members, friends, and loved ones of doubters have died.