Pharma saw huge reputation gains in the last year. It should make sure not to squander them, expert says

If it seems the pharmaceutical industry is in the press more these days amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the drug pricing battle in Washington, D.C., that's because it is. But while the industry has faced decades of negative sentiment among Americans, more people are coming around to see pharma's point of view, new Harris Poll data show.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a "baseline" 32% of the U.S. public had a positive opinion of the pharmaceutical industry, Rob Jekielek, managing director of Harris Poll, said in a recent interview.

Now, though, a "new normal" has set in. In recent months, pharma's rating has hovered in the 50% to 60% approval range, he said. The group tracks sentiment on a seven-point scale, and scores five and above are considered "positive."

During the pandemic, people began seeing drug companies in a “totally different light than they ever have,” Jekielek said, which led to a "massive spike" in the industry's reputation since the start of 2020. Pharma's positive rep peaked in February at 62%.

Since then, Harris has tracked a "softening" down to 56% in its September data, collected between September 24 and September 26.

A few factors played into that softening, Jekielek said. Biogen’s controversial Alzheimer’s approval dominated headlines for months, and now the drug pricing debate once again is in full force in Washington. But Jekielek stressed the comedown from the February peak hasn’t been driven by “explicit negativity,” but rather “increased ambivalence.”

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The industry has a "big opportunity" to capitalize on its recent gains and ensure it doesn't slip back to pre-pandemic lows, Jekielek said. Knowing what's worked to bolster pharma's image in recent months, he suggested the industry should work to “reinforce the science and the people behind the organizations.” 

It’s important for the industry to “engage proactively, and not on the same arguments” that it’s been making for the last decade, he added. It can't be a “single company” or a “silver bullet” type approach, Jekielek said, but rather "everybody" chipping in to raise awareness efforts.

RELATED: Pharma's reputation gains persist through pandemic, bolstered by vaccine makers' pledge: Harris Poll

Meanwhile, another new factor helping the industry's rep is that, with the COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, the public sees pharma companies working to prevent diseases rather than simply treat them.

Since the start of last year, pharma has seen the biggest gains of any sector in Harris' routine polls.

The industry's reputation jumped 24 percentage points to 56%, followed by a 22-percentage-point gain for health insurance companies, a 14-percentage-point gain for government and a 13-point gain for financial services. The tech sector is the only industry to have lost ground over that time, slipping two points to 73%.