Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Downsizing of Big Pharma: Brain-Drain or Blessing?

“As Big Pharma downsizes, a major loss of brain power."

The above Philadelphia Inquirer article follows several women in the pharmaceutical industry who have been laid off in the past months. The women are part of a trend that has seen thousands of pharmaceutical researchers, developers, marketers, and other employees losing jobs. The reason for the down-size is that many so-called “blockbuster drugs”-- high-earning drugs that treat common problems-- are now coming off their patents, meaning that any company (not just Merck or Pfizer) can develop generic versions of these drugs for cheaper. This equates to a substantial loss of revenue for the big players in the industry, who had gleaned most of their profit from these drugs. It also means big changes for industry-led research, which will now likely focus on developing so-called “niche” drugs that treat less common conditions.

While the content is informative, I find the tone and scope of this piece deeply unsettling.

The Inquirer has framed the issue of Big Pharma's market-reduction as a pitying human-interest piece that laments the unemployment of life-long employees in a well-established regional industry.  Industry changes are consequently characterized as a deplorable “brain drain” and loss of innovation. As further evidence of the tragedy, the article incredulously invokes the “multiplier effect”-- the idea that those who have lost their jobs will not contribute as much to the economy through their purchasing power-- despite the fact that this is in no way unique to pharmaceutical employees (except that they perhaps had a greater amount of money to spend, in the first place).

Now, don't get me wrong. Unemployment is absolutely devastating, especially when you have worked  over 20 years in an industry where you have felt productive and satisfied. In my heart, I feel very sorry for these women, as I do for anyone who has had their life disrupted in this way.

But if you are asking me to feel sorry that Big Pharma is downsizing, you must be joking.

This is not the end of innovation, it is the beginning. For years, the “blockbuster” drugs-- which treat common conditions like high cholesterol, pain, allergies, diabetes, and depression-- have been in the death-grip of Big Pharma's claws. All this has led to a lack of innovation (why would you need to innovate if there is no competition?) and exorbitantly high prices. It is important to remember that the pharmaceutical industry is just that-- an industry, fundamentally concerned with profit over wellness.  I cannot say that I am sorry that the market-manipulation of wellness is diminishing.

Like I said, I'm sorry anyone has to lose their job. But let's think of the many lives that will be improved by providing common prescription drugs at economically feasible prices.

As a side note, I am not so naive to think that Big Pharma will go down without a fight. I predict that there will be some unintended consequences to the industry's shift away from blockbuster drugs-- namely the medicalization of more and more normal human conditions in order to create a market for the “niche” drugs mentioned above. It remains, however, for us to see the direction in which the industry will move to save itself.

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