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Is Big Pharma Transparent Enough?

Published on:
5 minutes

Are the efforts of transparency by the pharmaceutical industry sufficient to regain the trust of the world population? The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world hostage since March 2020, yet there is hope that this health crisis may be vanquished this year, thanks to the approved vaccines by Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna. While there are ongoing campaigns encouraging vaccination, there are nonetheless doubts about these newly-developed vaccines. This reticence compromises the effectiveness of vaccination drives already underway. HEC Paris Professor Vedran Capkun tells us why transparency is critical in this current context. He explains what the outcome of the production of these vaccines represents for the pharmaceutical industry.

a doctor handling a bottle of COVID19 vaccine

©Leigh Prather on Adobe Stock

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Why transparency by pharmaceutical companies is critical in the development of new vaccines?

Our research suggests that transparency is very important because it allows for better allocation of resources across all pharmaceutical firms and research labs, thus avoiding resource wastage. Pharmaceutical companies need to be very open both about their clinical trials and their contents. They are honoring the former but improvements are needed on the latter. Our research shows that pharmaceutical companies need to disclose even when the trials fail because those results can help other scientists in their research endeavors.


Researchers' feedback is crucial to save lives and improve the quality of care.


In the context of COVID-19, clinical trials disclosure would help develop additional treatments and better vaccines. Releasing clinical trial results allows for other researchers and medical professionals to scrutinize them and to signal when things go wrong, because they see effects of these medications and vaccines on the field. This feedback is crucial to save lives, improve the quality of care, and avoid scandals that we had in the past such as with Vioxx. This disclosure also needs to be available to the public as soon as these trials are finished. 


What does the outcome of these vaccines represent for the pharmaceutical industry?

Developing and marketing COVID-19 vaccines could be beneficial to pharmaceutical firms. It represents an opportunity but also a lot of risks. The potential long-term effects could be positive for their financials, but also for their reputation. Those effects depend on the pharmaceutical firm’s transparency and fairness in their distribution of vaccines, and production and releasing all the necessary information to the public. It is difficult to predict whether they will actually achieve these objectives of fairness and transparency.

Can this crisis allow the pharmaceutical industry to regain the population’s trust after various scandals that the industry has suffered over the years?  

This will again depend on the way they communicate. If they're fair and transparent in the development process for vaccines, but also in revealing the sources of funding, cost, distribution and pricing of the vaccines, we could see them regain public trust. If, however, they have something to hide and do hide it, then the backlash could be very significant.

Furthermore, there is a significant cost to pharmaceuticals when they release this information. In the past, they haven't been willing to release the information until they were forced to do so. But in a crisis like this, failure to properly communicate could lead to a bad public image and to regulatory interventions. For example, the European Union puts limits on exports of vaccines from the EU, following the moves by Pfizer and AstraZeneca to lower shipments to EU countries.


We saw that also in the past: whenever there was a scandal, there were new rules imposed on pharmaceutical companies, especially to increase their transparency and to publish their research online.


We saw that in the past: whenever there was a scandal, there were new rules imposed on pharmaceutical companies, especially to increase their transparency and to publish their research online. For instance, the website was created following the Vioxx scandal. In that case, pharmaceutical companies needed to post their research and communicate their clinical trials. If pharmaceutical companies do not publish their research and do not become more transparent, regulators could step in and actually increase the cost of their doing business and perhaps rightly so. 

Are the efforts of transparency by the pharmaceutical industry up to the current challenges in this particular health crisis?

Although some firms have been communicating better than others during the pandemic, the level of transparency remains relatively low. It is likely to be insufficient to generate or to increase public trust. In my opinion, it is important not only to increase transparency but also to make sources of information more credible. Yet, we have observed mistakes recently, such as AstraZeneca miscommunicating about the vaccines or the retractions of journal articles. This could lead to the loss of credibility of the process and of the pharmaceutical industry. But it could also have an impact on the entire research community in the eyes of the public. 


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