|Washington, D.C. — Johnson & Johnson researchers working on a vaccine against the coronavirus are “just like the heroes in the hospitals” fighting to save patients, J&J CEO Alex Gorsky said on the “Today” show a few weeks ago.
It’s a message he likes to deliver. In recent weeks, Gorsky has talked about J&J’s efforts on NBC’s “Today” and twice on CNBC and Fox. Nobody asked him about high drug prices, J&J’s role in the opioid crisis or lawsuits alleging its baby powder caused cancer.
J&J and the rest of the pharmaceutical industry have seized on the coronavirus crisis as a way to polish an image tarnished by unaffordable medicine, patent lawsuits and an addiction epidemic.
The potential payoff is clear: If drug companies can produce a successful vaccine or therapy against the biggest infectious threat in a century, “maybe you can start to undo some of that reputational damage,” said Michael Kinch, head of the Centers for Research Innovation in Biotechnology at Washington University in St. Louis. “I have to wonder if that’s some of the motivation.”
A top pharmaceutical executive recently told him: “When I entered this industry, we were the most respected industry in the world. Now we’re below tobacco.”
But it is uncertain which, if any, of the firms trying to claim center stage now — J&J for vaccines, Gilead for its antiviral or Abbott for its testing machines — deserve the leading role or will have it when new products arrive on the market and are priced.
Their star turn comes after what critics say have been decades of underinvestment in vaccines and medicines for the most common viral diseases in favor of more lucrative drugs that are less important to public health. The industry is talking about serving the public good while setting itself up for profits, downplaying the government’s role as a research partner and exaggerating prospects for victory, they say.
J&J’s vaccine candidate “has a high degree of probability of being successful against the COVID-19 virus,” Gorsky said on NBC’s “Today.”
But Gorsky “doesn’t know that yet,” given the difficulties of vaccine development and the many chances for failure, said Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “We should be humble about this virus, about what the likelihood is for protection.”
Three years ago, President Donald Trump said drug companies were “getting away with murder” by charging so much for medicine. In early March, he instead called pharma CEOs “geniuses” at a White House meeting and said “we’re very proud” of their work.
J&J is producing an eight-episode streaming series called “The Road to a Vaccine,” in which CNN personality Lisa Ling interviews company officials, patients and scientists. A Financial Times profile on Gorsky was so flattering the company put out a press release drawing attention to it.
“When science wins, we all win,” says a new ad from Pfizer, which recently began human trials on a coronavirus vaccine. Executives at Gilead, maker of the antiviral remdesivir, “recognize the human suffering, the human need here,” company CEO Daniel O’Day said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 3.
“Science is how we get back to normal,” says a new campaign from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s biggest lobbying group.
Trump administration officials, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert on the president’s coronavirus task force, say a vaccine could be available within 12 to 18 months — far faster than any other such treatment has been developed.
Such a schedule would be inconceivable without previous research by pharma companies, industry officials say.
“There are 70 vaccines in development for COVID-19 and several of them are already in human testing,” said PhRMA spokesperson Priscilla VanderVeer. “A lot of this is happening because the industry believes in vaccines, and many companies have made investments in vaccines.”
J&J officials, whose vaccine research has been aided by tens of millions of dollars in federal support over the years, say their recent experience developing a vaccine for the Ebola virus and potential vaccines for HIV, Zika and other bugs gives them the ability to move quickly. The company’s newly expanded plant in the Netherlands is able to make hundreds of millions of doses a year, they say.
But drug companies have been drifting away from vaccine research for decades, say independent authorities. They make far more money treating chronic ailments with regular pills or injections for years than on preventing disease.