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What Has Pharma Ever Done For Us? A Reflection of Reputational Risks in the Pharma Industry on World AIDS Day

01 December 2011 Gustav Ando

Today, 1 December 2011, is World AIDS Day. For many, it is a time to reflect on the tragedy - personal or otherwise - that this most vicious pandemic has brought upon the world over the last 30 or so years. It is a day for campaigning and raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, with speeches and events being held around the world.

This year's theme is "Getting to Zero": which means attempting to achieve zero new HIV infections…and zero AIDS-related deaths.

It is worth taking a moment to pause and think about that. How can we be aiming for zero deaths from HIV/AIDS, a disease which is world-renowned as one of the most vicious and complex afflictions that man has ever been confronted with?

Progress, Progress, Progress
Certainly, what this target alludes to is the enormous progress that has been made in treating this disease in its comparatively short history. And it is not just about education and behavioural progress, though undoubtedly the plethora of campaigns run by governments, international organisations, NGOs and institutions like UNAIDS have been fantastically successful.

The Role of the Pharma Industry
But one area which rarely gets much attention, even on a day like today, is the remarkable role that the pharmaceutical industry has played in beating back the previously relentless progress of this disease.

Such has been the medical progress here, that HIV/AIDS is now often now considered to be a chronic disease - not totally different from diabetes - and that if patients stick to their anti-viral regimens they can lead long and productive lives. A far cry indeed from the early years of the epidemic, when the disease would strike fear among its victims, who knew they did not have long to live.

Reputational Risks
So with HIV/AIDS being such a clear example of where the pharmaceutical industry has done a societal good, how come it still suffers from such a bad reputation in many corners? Indeed, the industry, which at its core has a strong altruistic agenda to improve the lives of people around the world, still suffers from a wide variety of reputational risks.

These threats traditionally came from animal rights activists protesting the R&D operations of the companies, or anarchists protesting against the profit-making business model. But over the last 10 years or so, in the wake of the withdrawal of drugs like Vioxx, threats have also come from campaigners protesting against the basic safety of medicines on the market.

Indeed, there have also been protests against the morality of the pharma industry's clinical trials in the developing world - and such was the depths that the industry's reputation sank to, that John Le Carre no longer saw spies, terrorists and corrupt officials as the key enemies to society in his famous (pre-9/11) 2001 novel, The Constant Gardener: it was, of all things, the pharma industry.

The HIV/AIDS arena has not been immune from these risks: the pharma industry has been on the wrong end of many critical articles over the pricing of HIV/AIDS medicines, particularly in the developing world.

But I think on a day like today, it is worth noting that an HIV/AIDS patient would still be faced with an utterly terminal outlook, if it were not for the treatments that were initially developed by companies like BMS and Merck & Co in the late 80s, and refined in the 1990s and 2000s. Although we still don't have a complete picture of HIV/AIDS, it is astounding to think that such a virulent disease was understood so quickly, and that within a matter of a few years the first highly effective treatments began to hit the market.

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