We’re depending on big pharma to save the world — and we absolutely, positively detest big pharma.


It’s another informative lead-off commentary at Bloomberg’s Coronavirus Daily e-mail newsletter, which you can receive by going here.

Don’t Screw This Up

In the next few months, the drug industry is going to face a choice.

One of the more than 200 attempts to find a coronavirus drug or vaccine is going to work. And when it does, that product – and let’s hope it gets here soon – is going to be either a once-in-a-lifetime money-making opportunity, or a once-in-a-lifetime reputational opportunity.

The temptation for many pharma executives will be to try to do both, and be remembered only for the former.

Drug companies are the most-disliked industry in America, according to a 2019 Gallup survey. Only 27% of the country views them positively. People like advertising and public relations professionals more. Even lawyers do better. Pharma lags the federal government, oil drillers, the telephone companies, and, well, everyone. (Restaurants are the most liked.)

And yet, here they are with an opportunity to save the world. That’s no understatement. The global economy has come to a standstill and trillions of dollars have been lost in the market. Social-distancing means people can’t go to their jobs or have lost the ones they had.

An effective drug or a working vaccine is the single-most important tool for the economy and society to get back to normal. A drug means people can be exposed to the virus, get sick, and get better. A vaccine means they can be exposed and not become sick at all. The big, scary virus becomes just another bug we beat.

Six months ago, the need to ding the pharma industry for a couple tens of billions was one of the only things Democrats and Republicans could agree needed doing. And every time a new drug price bill meandered a bit closer to passing, lobbyists would dust off hobby horses like, “all of these profits are necessary to fund future research.” And then they’d raise prices again.

The current leader in the race to come up with a treatment is Gilead Sciences. In 2013, Gilead kicked off the now-seven-years-old U.S. debate over high drug prices when it introduced a pill that cured another virus, hepatitis C. It charged $84,000 for the therapy, argued that it was cheaper than a liver transplant, and set off an ugly battle in which the company made billions of dollars and the drug industry became increasingly more despised.

The major drug companies working on treatments have suggested they’re focused on the research, not on how much money they’ll make for it. That’s good – opportunities to save the world don’t come along often. Don’t screw it up. —Drew Armstrong