GlaxoSmithKline CEO Walmsley: COVID-19 is pharma's chance for redemption

The pharmaceutical industry has constantly come under fire over such issues as high drug prices and patent evergreening. But as COVID-19 rages across the globe, accentuating the need for therapeutics and vaccines, drugmakers should embrace the chance to change the public’s perception.

That’s the message GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley conveyed at the third annual Helen Alexander Memorial Lecture. But the rare opportunity at redemption also comes with a challenge, she warned.

“The world has never seen our industry as more important,” Walmsley said, as quoted by Bloomberg. “We have a chance to improve our reputation if we deliver on our purpose to find solutions responsibly. But we also need to explain better why it’s in everyone’s interests that we continue to do it profitably.”

The pharma industry has tried to explain how drug prices help cover their investments in R&D and that they set prices responsibly, but in the past those efforts did little to sway public opinion. In fact, an annual Gallup poll found last year that the pharma industry sunk to the bottom among 25 industries rated by Americans.

RELATED: One COVID-19 opportunity for pharma? A chance to bolster its reputation, Lilly CEO says

COVID-19 makes the conversation about Big Pharma profitability even more delicate.

Walmsley has said that GSK doesn’t plan to profit off the COVID-19 vaccine it’s developing with Sanofi during the pandemic phase. That means the company will reinvest any short-term profits back into pandemic preparedness, she said. GSK is also offering its pandemic vaccine adjuvant, AS03, to developers of several other experimental COVID-19 vaccines.

Walmsley’s pledge is similar to that made by executives from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, which are also working on COVID-19 vaccines.

But others have questioned the rationale behind drug companies forgoing profits in a pandemic. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, for example, called such talk “very fanatic and radical.”

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

Gilead Sciences knows firsthand how challenging drug pricing is during a pandemic. The company faced a lot of pushback on remdesivir, which bears an FDA emergency use authorization for treating COVID-19 and is awaiting the agency’s formal decision on an approval. Even after Gilead set the drug’s list price at a cost-effectiveness threshold that industry watchers viewed as very stringent, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, as well as consumer advocacy group Public Citizen still balked at the price.

As for the notion that the pandemic offers a reputation-overhaul opportunity for the industry, Walmsley isn't alone in her support of that notion. Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks has made similar comments before, saying the pandemic gives the biopharma industry a “once in a generation opportunity to reset” its reputation.

The good news is, pharma’s reputation has ticked upward during the pandemic. In April, the Harris Poll found that about 40% of Americans had a positive view of the pharma industry, up from 32% pre-COVID-19.

And earlier this month, that number rose again, to 49% for the entire pharma sector. The boost came shortly after the CEOs of nine COVID-19 vaccine developers, including Walmsley, signed a joint pledge agreeing to file the vaccines for emergency authorizations only when they’re proven safe and effective in large phase 3 clinical studies.