Trump's flipped his view on pharma companies thanks to COVID-19. Will the public?

coronavirus
As pharma jumps into the fight against COVID-19, will it help rehab the industry's image? (Pixabay/Thor Deichmann)

President Donald Trump recently referred to the pharma leaders he was meeting with about COVID-19 strategies as “geniuses.” But wasn't it only a few years ago that he lashed out at them for “getting away with murder?"

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have inspired a change of heart from the president when it comes to the industry, does the rest of America feel the same way? And if not, could this be a chance for pharma to turn the tide? After all, it was only a few months ago that pharma unseated the federal government for last place in an annual Gallup poll that asks Americans for their views on 25 industries—marking its worst finish in 20 years.

RELATED: Pharma sinks to new low⁠—and takes last place⁠—in consumer sentiment poll

Some pharma and healthcare industry executives agree that an eventual verdict on pharma’s reputation in light of COVID-19 is still down the road, but they did discuss what's possible.

David Goldsmith, chief strategy officer at WeGo Health, qualified his remarks with the caveat that the patient advocacy community is not a monolith, which makes it hard not to oversimplify.

“That said, I think it is fair to say that patients' views of pharma reflect a 'love/hate' relationship. The ‘murder/genius’ dichotomy is real—and they are by no means mutually exclusive,” he said. “It is safe to say that patient leaders we work with are, more often than not, deeply grateful to pharma for developing drugs that have saved or improved their lives. At the same time, they are deeply frustrated.”

He reached out to patient leaders with a digital survey crafted for this story to ask if COVID-19 has made their perception of pharma either more or less favorable. Of the 30 respondents over the past few days, 95% said their perception hasn’t changed one way or the other. However, a few people added comments that they noticed pharma efforts around the outbreak.

“It is heartening to see companies helping the public in finding ways to help stop COVID-19,” wrote one person, who said they already had a positive view of pharma companies.

Another patient with a chronic condition said the positive response by drugmakers around vaccine research, testing kits and other measures “does make the pharma industry appear to be very 'proactive' at looking for solutions.”

Wendy Blackburn, executive vice president at Intouch Solutions, said she’s been thinking about pharma reputation lately and while people seem to have a “dash of hope,” most are still in wait-and-see mode.

“Years of bad behavior, the opioid crisis, drug pricing criticism—and wide media coverage of those issues—have enabled a deeply embedded, jaded viewpoint of pharma,” she said in an email interview. “The world is watching, and the risk for a misstep is high. If trials take too long or fail, if vaccines or treatments are approved but are overpriced—the ‘watch and see’ sentiment will easily and swiftly turn to fierce condemnation again.”

RELATED: U.S. trust in pharma ticks upward, but consumers still distrust the industry: survey

John Cahill, global CEO of McCann Health, agreed that it will depend on how the industry handles itself and its partners in the coming months. While some stakeholders have been antagonistic toward pharma, especially in politics, he noted that the world is now uniting around a common mission that can include pharma.

Pharma companies, in fact, have begun working with many different partners over the past four or five years, he said, “but because of the cloud that hangs over pharma to a certain extent, it hasn’t really felt that way. It is now a teachable moment for pharma and their partnerships with the community.”

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