Certain allegations really hurt. The EU’s accusation that pharmaceutical companies deliverately overhyped the threat of bird flu to sell vaccine drugs is about as serious as it can get in reputation management terms. “Big Pharma” already has a reputation for hyping drugs, hiding clinical research results and generally doing nothing for the common good, now they are, effectively, being accused of making governments buy substantially more drugs than they would be needing. The UK has bought 90 million doses of Tamiflu, whilst Germany bought 94 million. The UK has only used 4 million of the doses so far.
The heart of the accusation is that by persuading their “stooges” in the WHO to declare the 2009 birdflu outbreak a pandemic, national governments were forced to implement emergency contingency plans that involved the purchase of huge batches of vaccines. A number of governments and organisations are announcing or demanding investigation into the role of pharmaceutical companies in the decision process.
Whilst we all love a good conspiracy, there is compelling codependency between WHO scientists and pharmaceutical companies. For example, Professor Juhani Eskola, the director of the Finnish research vaccine program and a new member of the WHO group ‘Strategic Advisory Group of Experts’ (SAGE), is directly involved with recommending which vaccines — and how many — member countries should purchase them for the alleged “pandemic. According to documents acquired through the Danish Freedom of Information Act, Eskola’s Finnish institute, THL, received nearly 6.3 million Euros, ($9,049,760.00), from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for “research” on vaccines during 2009. Not surprising, GlaxoSmithKline produces the H1N1 vaccine ridiculously named ‘Pandemrix,’ which the Finnish government — following recommendations from Professor Eskola — purchased for their national pandemic reserve stockpiles. Likewise, the more than 6.3 million Euros that the WHO’s research center received from GlaxoSmithKline represents the WHO vaccine program’s number one income source.
All this is on the heels of another dramatic WHO scandal involving Austrian journalist Jane Burgermeister who revealed that the WHO conspired with Baxter International (another vaccine manufacturer) and the United Nations itself to produce and release live bird flu viruses in 2009, all in an effort to trigger the pandemic. Burgermeister has, in effect, accused the WHO itself planning to commit mass murder. (You can read more these allegations here)
These allegations are part of a wider reputation management problem facing all pharmaceutical companies. On the one hand they position themselves as selfless wellness companies, on the other hand, critics accuse them of being the nasty end of capitalism. Pharma companies descry oversight that, according to them makes clinical research too expensive in both time and financial terms. At the same time, their critics accuse the companies of spending more on lobbying and influencing than they do on actual research. It is estimated that the industry spent $57.5 billion on marketing and promotion in 2004 alone far exceeding the $20 billion that was erroneously estimated by the most often quoted research firm, Integrated Medical Systems (IMS). The amount spent on research and development actually pales in comparison, at $31.5 billion. While the substantial evidence that the FDA is incompetent and inefficient, something that I have seen for myself; the pharma companies’ intense lobbying of all decision-makers and influencers is equally questionable. As Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown puts it,“ PhRMA [the major lobbying group] doesn’t need to lobby. The industry is in the While House already.”
The challenge for any pharmaceutical company is that they are all tarred with the same brush. If these allegations get proven, some companies face reputational meltdown, but increasingly the whole industry faces even greater oversight and a long awaited control on their lobbying and marketing spending.