Jun 6th 2020UNPRECEDENTED IS AN overused word. But to find a parallel for the response of the pharmaceutical industry to the covid-19 pandemic, it i
UNPRECEDENTED IS AN overused word. But to find a parallel for the response of the pharmaceutical industry to the covid-19 pandemic, it is necessary to go back to the start of the second world war, another time when countries were desperate for miracle cures. Back then big pharmaceutical companies, especially in America, were as unproductive and unloved as they are today. People were appalled at the mis-selling of addictive narcotics, as they have been during the opioid crisis. And in pre-war Britain, scientists had discovered what they believed could be a wonder antibiotic—penicillin. Yet they could not find any firm, even in America, prepared to take the risk of producing it at scale.
Then came Pearl Harbour and everything changed. As Gerald Posner writes in a new book, “Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America”, the war effort led American firms like Merck, Squibb and Pfizer to pool their research on penicillin. Mass-producing the antibiotic became as much of a national-security priority as building an atom bomb. By D-Day in 1944, there was enough penicillin to treat 40,000 troops. It was a turning point. The pharma industry emerged from the war revelling “in the glow of its collaborative wartime penicillin programme”.
As the title of his book suggests, Mr Posner is no fan of the industry as it exists 75 years later. Yet even he would have noticed the…