Big profits beckon for pharmaceutical companies, which are already using their work on vaccines to fight efforts in Washington to curb drug prices.
By Jesse Drucker, David Gelles and Katie Thomas
For a long time, drug makers have been the most hated industry in America. Companies are blamed for gouging prices on lifesaving drugs and enriching themselves through the opioid crisis, among other sins.
Now, with pharmaceutical companies racing to find vaccines to end the coronavirus pandemic, the industry is hoping to redeem itself in the public’s mind.
The primary goal, of course, is to rescue the world from the grips of a vicious virus. But a big fringe benefit is to get public credit — and to use an improved image to fend off government efforts to more heavily regulate the industry.
Consider Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest health care companies.
In recent years, its reputation has been battered by accusations that products like its artificial hips and talcum powder have harmed customers. In 2019, an Oklahoma judge ordered the company to pay $572 million for contributing to the opioid epidemic.
This spring, Johnson & Johnson jumped into the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine; its candidate is now in the final stage of clinical trials. (On Monday, the company said it had temporarily paused the study after a participant became sick with an unexplained illness.)
Regardless of whether the vaccine ever comes to market, the company is looking to create a surge of positive publicity from its work. Its chief executive, Alex Gorsky, went on the “Today” show this spring and called Johnson & Johnson’s lab workers heroes. The company has produced a slick, self-promotional online video series, “The Road to a Vaccine,” featuring feel-good interviews with the company’s scientists and segments on issues like whether it is safe to send children back to school.
Johnson & Johnson’s efforts to develop a vaccine will show that “J&J is a company full of people with heart and soul who are doing this 24-7, with all their science and know-how,” Dr. Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer, said in an interview. While the company’s image at times has been “trashed,” he said, “I hope that we can get to a better reputation.”
That is a widely held sentiment across the pharmaceutical industry. Companies are looking for public makeovers as a political battle over drug price controls looms. Others are seizing the once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise money for future projects from investors and the government.
For an industry demonized by consumers and politicians, the hunt for a vaccine “offers a path to redemption,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
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