Is COVID-19 Changing the Public Perception of the Pharmaceutical Industry?

6-months ago, in September 2019, the pharmaceutical industry was one of the most misunderstood (and disliked) business sectors in the world. 

According to Gallup's 2019 poll, Americans were more than twice as likely to rate the pharmaceutical industry negatively (58%) than positively (27%), giving it a net-positive score of -31. Not only did this put the sector at the bottom of the 2019 rankings, but -31 is the industry's lowest rating since the poll began in 2001.

Across the pond, the perception of the industry was equally bleak. The pharmaceutical sector scored just 44 on the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, putting it in the untrusted category (it would need a score of 50 to fall into neutral territory and over 60 to be trusted).

Experts attribute the industry's negative reputation to the disproportionate number of unflattering headlines in the mainstream media. For years the amount of bad press surrounding pricing and profits has outweighed the good. This bias isn't just down to journalists, it's also due to an industry-wide conservatism about promoting and communicating with the general public, who are largely unaware of the industry's processes and regulatory constraints.

Flash forward to April 2020, and non-stop COVID-19 coverage fills our news feeds daily. From heart-wrenching stories about our front-line heroes to potential therapies and vaccine development, the global Coronavirus pandemic has thrust the pharmaceutical industry into the public eye. Now, the world is looking at pharma as a source of hope.

Will this new attention change the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry?

Across the industry, companies have mobilised to help fight the pandemic, be that by manufacturing tests, ventilators and other critical devices; donating funds or products; working to repurpose or produce therapies; or critically, develop a vaccine. 

We've also seen an extraordinary level of cooperation. Every week, new companies are embracing partnerships with research institutions, government bodies and competitors. Just last week The Times shared the news that "rival" pharmaceuticals GSK and Sanofi are working together on a vaccine. And on Friday, the National Institute of Health announced a new public-private partnership between federal researchers and 16 pharmaceutical companies. 

At the time of writing, there are more than 200 vaccine and therapeutic candidates in development - an unprecedented level of activity in under three months. 

New data from APCO Worldwide suggests that this momentous, industry-wide effort is already impacting public perception. They found that 52% of those surveyed were two times more likely to feel positively toward the industry thanks to its response to the pandemic, while 68% were optimistic that the pharmaceutical industry will develop a treatment for COVID-19 in time.

Even so, will this faith in pharma last? 

The pandemic has given the public a unique insight into the industry in action; highlighting the barriers to creating breakthrough therapies and the importance of ongoing innovation. Proving that increasing transparency is key to redefining pharma's narrative.

But, as FiercePharma warns, "The world is watching, and the risk for a misstep is high." Although the APCO data provides optimism on public perception, it's too early to tell whether the pharmaceutical sector will emerge from this crisis favourably. If a vaccine takes too long or treatments are overpriced, faith and hope could quickly turn to criticism. 

Either way, there's no doubt that COVID-19 will shape the reputation of the industry for years to come. 

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