The pharmaceutical industry – a wasted chance at redemption?

sign that says 'big pharama'
olivia moore

Sarah McKeon

17th February 2021


Like any business, pharmaceutical companies need to make a profit in order to grow, succeed, and compete in their industry. However, due to the nature of their business, pharmaceutical companies are commonly demonised and portrayed as modern-day villains that use and manipulate illness to make a profit. There was hope when such companies began manufacturing covid-19 vaccines that they would be able to salvage their image through good-natured actions. There was even hope that such companies may use the vaccine as a springboard to tighten the gap on global healthcare inequality. But, has this opportunity been wasted?


‘Big Pharma’ has a dire public image, and it is understandable why. In 2015, Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of its HIV treatment medication from $13.50 to $750 per pill in America. Another common source of outrage in America is the cost of insulin, where some are forced to choose between managing their diabetes or feeding their family. There are countless more examples of medication being sold at extortionate prices, making it practically impossible for those in impecunious situations to overcome treatable diseases. These actions have caused severe distrust from the public, with many believing in what is known as the ‘Big Pharma conspiracy theory.’ This conspiracy encompasses a belief that pharmaceutical companies ‘operate for nefarious purpose and against the public good by withholding treatments for cancer and other diseases in order to maximise their profits.’ Although a cynical and unfounded theory, it all stems from the actions taken by pharmaceutical companies to date.


Given the severe global impact of covid-19, many had hoped that pharmaceutical companies would act with benevolence by putting their profit-earning nature aside temporarily, which would in turn improve their public image. However, this hope has proven to be overly optimistic. BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna have opted for a for-profit model during the pandemic. Pfizer in particular expects €12.5bn in covid vaccine revenue this year. They do not expect the profits to stop here however, with Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, stating that it was an ‘increasingly probable scenario’ that people will require boosters, or different vaccine formulations to keep up with new variants of the virus. He then added, with perhaps a hint of hopefulness, that this would result in a ‘durable’ revenue stream.


It is morally questionable at the very least to earn, and hope to continuously earn, such a high profit in critical times like these. We have placed a higher burden on pharmaceutical companies to act more altruistic in covid-19 times than we have on other industries. However, this is not an unfair expectation and the reasoning behind this is simple: the vaccine is not an optional purchase. You would not be in danger should you be unable to afford that new fiction book from Amazon or those new Levi jeans that just got released. You will however live in fear for your health, and ultimately your survival, if you happen to live in a poorer nation which does not have the means to purchase this vaccine, as well as an indefinite amount of boosters and newer vaccines. As encapsulated by Stephen Lewis, former United Nations envoy, ‘drug companies are deciding whether people live or die.’


“It is morally questionable at the very least to earn, and hope to continuously earn, such a high profit in critical times like these.”


It is important to recognise that some pharmaceutical companies have opted to be not-for-profit for the duration of the pandemic, specifically Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. This is definitely admirable and the beneficial impact this will have in poorer nations must not be overlooked. However, as the vaccines produced by these companies have a lower efficacy rate and are therefore are the less popular choice, it should be expected that this charitability will be overshadowed by the actions of other more rapacious companies.


It is a common perception that being ruthless is the key to having a successful business, and the pharmaceutical industry unfortunately serves to further prove this point. Although this may be how many businesses operate, the simple fact is we expect more compassion and humanity coming from an industry that deals with life or death situations. The way in which pharmaceutical companies operate essentially promotes and encourages the devastating effects that wealth inequality has on the world.


Essentially, the pharmaceutical industry has not redeemed its image during this pandemic, but instead has regretfully cemented its image in the public’s eye as being unmerciful and opportunistic.



Featured photo by Bart Heird on Flickr


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