Americans loathe the pharmaceutical industry. It ranks dead last in a recent Gallup poll that tracks the public’s opinion of 25 different sectors.
This scorn is misplaced. It’s true that the biopharmaceutical sector contains a few bad actors. But the majority of drug companies are responsible corporate citizens that spend billions to invent lifesaving medicines.
If we let our collective resentment turn into tangible, anti-innovation policies— such as drug price controls— we’ll end up worse off.
American pharmaceutical researchers deserve credit for the lion’s share of medical progress. In 2017, firms poured $97 billion into research and development operations in the United States. That’s more than double the U.S. government’s spending on scientific research. Scientists in U.S. labs are currently developing more than half of all medicines in development worldwide.
Thanks to these efforts, Americans are beating deadly diseases in record numbers. Cancer death rates have declined close to 30 percent since the 1990s. Researchers credit nearly three-quarters of these survival gains to groundbreaking drugs.
Biopharmaceutical research also revolutionized the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Just 30 years ago, a diagnosis was a death sentence. In the mid-1990s, scientists developed highly active antiretroviral therapies. These drugs caused HIV/AIDS death rates to plummet 88 percent.
Scientists have recently turned to new types of drugs, such as gene and immuno-therapies, that reprogram patients’ bodies to fight disease. Doctors already use these medicines to treat hemophilia, leukemia, and blindness.
Progress like this doesn’t come easy. It takes over a decade to turn a promising lab compound into a marketable medicine. For every experimental drug that makes it to patients, nine others fail in clinical trials.
Taking failure into consideration, it costs more than $2 billion on average to bring a new treatment to market.
For the most part, pharmaceutical companies set drug prices at reasonable levels that help them recoup their investments and fund future research, while still preserving patients’ access to new therapies. Unfortunately, few Americans see that side of the industry. They only see people like Martin Shkreli, the so-called “pharma bro” who bought the rights to a 60-year-old, off-patent drug and then raised its price by more than 5,000 percent.
What Shkreli did was despicable. But he’s the exception, not the rule.
To see the true face of the pharmaceutical industry, Americans can look to innovators like the late Maurice Hilleman, a researcher who developed eight of the 14 most common children’s vaccines, including immunizations for chickenpox and measles. Researchers like him have collectively saved and improved tens of millions of lives.
The biopharmaceutical industry isn’t perfect. But drug companies work every day to cure deadly diseases, risking billions of dollars in the process.
If we forget that basic fact and eliminate companies’ incentives to invest in
research, we’ll live to regret it. Or perhaps, we won’t.
Sandip Shah is founder and president of Market Access Solutions, which develops strategies to optimize patient access to life-changing therapies