In The Field

Scrutinising big pharma

Here I am at the WCSJ (haven’t worked out how to say that as a word yet) in the midst of a scorching warm spell in London.

One of this morning’s sessions tackled the thorny, often emotive issue of “big pharma” and whether the media is used merely as an extension of a PR machine for the industry. Feelings ran high in the room, with a wide sweep of panelists. These included Paul Stoffels, head of global pharmaceutical research and development for Johnson & Johnson, and at the other end of the scale Vera Hassner Sharav, founder and president of the alliance for human research protection, a public interest watchdog that wants to stop biomedical research results remaining secret. Between them were John Ilman, a pharma journalist, Sarah Garner from NICE, the UKs drug regulator, and Cripsin Slee, head of PR for the ABPI.

Feelings ran high, and Stoffel gave a good overview of why he believes in the pharmaceutical industry, recounting his years of experience as a physician in AIDS and HIV-ridden Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. He admitted that there is a tension for pharma companies between making money and being a healthcare provider, yet this is what public companies must learn to balance.

Vera Sharav, on the other hand, gave another empassioned presentation, included slide after slide of information telling us how evil pharmaceuticals companies are.

But it struck me, thanks to a question from the floor, that the involvement of science, and scientists, in the debate about whether pharma companies ruthlessly push un-needed, dangerous drugs on the populus or not, is vastly overlooked. The role of the media should not only be about exposing bad practice after the event, but should be in reporting the scientific advances, and yes reporting who is paying for what. The perception of the pharma industry remains poor, and the importance of the science going on behind closed doors often brushed over.

Of course, another problem is in getting hold of that information, and gettting access to scientists who work in industry to comment on stories, both general and specific. If pharma copmanies want to embrace transparency, for this science journalist at least, that should include allowing me to talk to the world experts on certain diseases and drugs, which often reside inside the “Bunker” that Crispin Slee eloquently put it in the discussion.


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