Trust is such a delicate thing and, unfortunately, not something that can be black and white. When we turn our attention to Big Pharma, we can see these complications. Distrust of Big Pharma, the name often given to the companies in the pharmaceutical industry and sometimes also the medical community, is not a foreign concept. Indeed, in a poll surveying 1,019 adults in the United States, it was found that less than 50% of Americans in each age group trusted the industry at least a fair amount. The name itself implies a power that incites anxiety and distrust. And yet, when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Moderna that generated vaccines that may be one of the main contributors to one day returning to ‘normal.’
So, Big Pharma is good? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. When we look at the current drug prices of insulin and the history of the opioid epidemic, it is blatantly apparent why we should not trust the proprietors within the industry. Like any industry, pharmaceutical companies work on the basis of competition and the driving force behind many economic principles: generating profit. But when lives are involved, competition can become more than just something that may cause a loss of money — it can cause loss of life. Let’s observe the case with insulin, a ‘biologic’ drug that is necessary for those with diabetes. With only a few manufacturers producing insulin, prices have risen dramatically and forced many people who are unable to pay for insulin to ration insulin — a practice that can be fatal for those with diabetes. There is a similar trend of atrocious realities in the opioid epidemic. When many opioids were first marketed to hospitals, their addictive properties were not included. Instead, pharmaceutical companies pushed doctors to prescribe the pain killers. The fatal results of that are seen now, with nearly 1.6 million individuals affected by opioid use and nearly 70,630 deaths from opioid overdose in 2019. And this is simply scratching the surface.
So, how can we ever trust this industry again? Well, there are multiple paths. One can be found by looking back at rising insulin prices. Though change has been called for many years, things are starting to look up as some states are placing caps on insulin copays and the generation of the Build Back Better bill that would cap insulin prices across the U.S. Government intervention has the power to play a hand in regulating the effect of capitalism on the pharmaceutical industry. Moreover, similar to when tobacco companies were indicted in the 1980s for their role in tobacco-related deaths, companies with a hand in the opioid epidemic must suffer consequences. Research and development of drugs is heavily regulated and takes a very long time — this same attention should be paid to the advertising strategies to ensure that these consequences will never occur again. Simply, the path to trust will only be created if companies are quick and thoroughly penalized for mistakes, and regulations are set up to ensure such tragedies do not occur again.
Lastly, the role of the general population should not be ignored, because change will not truly occur until people trust these companies. Increasing education surrounding the process of developing pharmaceutical products — a simple discussion in school or greater interest in learning about the process — may also pave the way for increased trust. In the case of COVID-19, vaccine uneasiness has been rampant for many reasons. One of which is how quickly the vaccine was created. The technology of an mRNA vaccine had been present for many years — knowing this could ease the mind of some doubters. Moreover, being able to identify companies and having regulations to prevent future problems will also ease the minds of Americans.
Trust will take a long time to develop, but it is incredibly necessary and beneficial to everyone involved. For pharmaceutical companies, trust will increase sales and ensure the presence of their market value. For the average American, trust will ensure we will have someone to look to — someone we trust — when another pandemic occurs. If we don’t gain trust, the relationship between the people and Big Pharma will remain as it is now with populations distrusting the vaccine and choosing to remain unvaccinated — a decision that hurts the population as a whole. Change has been called for by many individuals for years, but now more than ever we must push harder. It will not be easy, but it is needed. Because if nothing changes, the next pandemic or even a mutation of COVID-19 may be far more disastrous, and herd immunity will become a distant reality.