COVID-19 Response Elevates Pharma in Public's Eye

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The coronavirus crisis our nation and the world are enduring has impacted how the public views health care innovation and the innovators themselves. Recent polling by APCO Worldwide, a global communications and crisis-management consultancy, shows the first signs of a shift in the public's perception of pharmaceutical companies. The data also indicates growing support for, and optimism about, the discovery of key vaccines and therapeutics.

The biopharmaceutical industry has been in the crosshairs for the past several years, from Sen. Bernie Sanders painting pharma companies as “greedy” to the Trump administration’s three-year focus on reducing prescription drug costs. This focus and attack manifested itself in an October 2019 Gallup poll of Americans’ views of various business sectors, which showed the pharmaceutical industry ranked near the bottom of the list. Now, however, new data suggests the industry’s image is improving as pharmaceutical companies emerge as an essential part of the COVID-19 solution. The question remains whether this positive trend will continue throughout the year and beyond. 

Non-stop COVID-19 coverage has filled our television screens, computers, and phone news feeds. The constant chilling and heart-wrenching news of increasing death rates, dramatic job losses, and extreme stress on health care providers and front-line heroes has in many ways reset public priorities. The crisis has resulted in unprecedented government spending on health care and a new focus on pharma companies themselves, which are exploring existing and new medicines to treat and prevent the infection. The news and social media abound with information on the latest potential therapies, the fast-tracking of vaccine development, and the growing promise of antibody treatment. CEOs are appearing on air regularly to highlight the great work of their researchers and efforts to expedite manufacturing. Through this intense level of interest and attention, opinions are changing. 

Our new APCO Insight data suggests the public perceives companies operating in the United States are more likely to create breakthrough therapies (58%) than are companies in other countries. Americans have an improved image of pharmaceutical companies. Interestingly, 68% of survey respondents are optimistic that a treatment for this novel virus strain will be developed.

Through this health crisis, the public is seeing biopharmaceutical companies in action. In watching and reading the wall-to-wall coverage, they have had a front-row seat to witness the importance of companies having the flexibility and resources to pivot manufacturing focus, increase capacity overnight, and engage top research talent.

The rapid innovations reflect the advantages of operating in a free-market setting. And seemingly on a weekly basis there are new announcements of companies working in partnership with the federal government. Our survey results show that 73% of Americans see a partnership between the federal government and the biopharmaceutical industry in developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

A good example of where this partnership exists is the office within the Department of Health and Human Services known as “BARDA.” This post-9/11, public-private entity helps accelerate and fund medical countermeasures to a host of threats, including the manufacture of products that may not always have a ready commercial market. While the public may be unaware of BARDA’s mission, Americans are increasingly aware of a sense of partnership. As the debate over the Defense Production Act increases, that spirit of cooperation between the federal government and private health sector could become challenged. But generally, the spirit of partnership with the pharmaceutical and medical device industries exists and is helping with the overall effort to save lives and aid recovery.

Policies that support innovation can allow companies to grow research and development capabilities and manufacturing power to respond in a crisis. From testing to developing a possible COVID-19 treatment, vaccine, or cure, this health care emergency will identify opportunities for the federal government to bolster an economic environment that supports innovation, healthy competition, and the ability to respond quickly to public health demands.

For the public to increasingly see pharma’s reputation positively, much depends on how this key health care sector handles this crisis, whether it encounters setbacks, how it uses opportunities to demonstrate corporate purpose by messaging its value, and how its members address future challenges.

For now, the American people appear to increasingly recognize the critical value of a strong, capable, and innovative pharmaceutical industry working in concert with our government. And ultimately, with faster solutions, the faster we can defeat this scourge and claim victory over this national challenge.

Jack Kalavritinos, a public affairs and health communications expert, is a senior director with APCO Worldwide. He previously served Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as his liaison to the governors and external affairs director, and he oversaw communications for the Food and Drug Administration as associate commissioner for external affairs. He also served in the Bush Administration's Department of Labor and Health and Human Services.


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