Pharma's 'superhero' image fades as inflation, Ukraine drown out the industry

The pharmaceutical industry’s reputation was flying high during the first year of the pandemic, but its steady decline continues—and it's now down 15% from its peak in late 2020.

That’s according to new data from the Harris Poll this month, which shows Americans see pharma in an increasingly less positive light. Polled in March, just 47% of respondents saw the industry in positive terms.

That’s down from the peak of 62% that Harris found in December 2020, when the first COVID mRNA shots were first authorized by the FDA. And it's down from the 50% the pollsters found at the start of 2022.

No calamitous event has hit pharma's reputation. Rather, two huge issues are drowning it out—the economy and war—at a time when the pandemic is moving toward endemic illness.

“This is an extremely important inflection point for the industry,” Rob Jekielek, managing director at Harris Poll, said in an interview. “What we’re seeing in the numbers is not because of some sort of new or historical issue that is at the forefront of the public’s mind; it’s really just the pharma industry falling into the background.”

This isn’t by pharma's choosing or because of some unforced error, but because of the worldwide news that's moved into the forefront of Americans’ minds. “I can say with 86% certainty, because that’s the data we have seen, that those two things are inflation in the economy, and the war in Ukraine,” Jekielek said.

Americans are more anxious about gassing up their cars, heating their homes and feeding their families, he said. And then there's a new “existential anxiety” about the war in Ukraine and the possible threat of a larger, possibly nuclear conflict. Those worries about inflation and the war are displacing the immediate threat of COVID.

Those two issues have also pushed the reputation of all major industries into the background, with Harris Poll’s data showing grocery, tech, retail, manufacturing and others seeing a steady downward turn over the past three months.

What is unique for pharma, Jekielek explained, is that it is also coping with the move from a pandemic stage into a more endemic stage of COVID. The emergency—and with it the bright spotlight that's been shining on the industry since 2020—has dimmed as the initial threat has ebbed, and we no longer wait on tenterhooks for the latest vaccine data.

When we’re not as focused on the industry, we start to lose interest in it, and therefore our view of it can start to drift back into older patterns, where the industry has typically been seen in a more negative light.

But there is still good news for pharma here: The industry’s rep is still much higher than it was at any point in the decade preceding the pandemic.

Pharma's image ratings typically languished at around 30% pre-pandemic. At around 50%, where it is now, the industry still commands more respect—and potentially has more influence with the public—than it did when its reputation was in the doldrums.

This could include issues such as drug pricing, which President Joe Biden recently re-upped as a political point, specifically mentioning insulin.

“When the pharma industry is riding more highly in Americans’ minds,” Jekielek said, “then it has greater capacity to argue against things it doesn’t want, and to push for the things it does, because it will likely have stronger backing and understanding in the public’s view.”