While the Olympic games and Michael Phelps’ spectacular array of medals distracted us for a few weeks, the political season is now back upon us in full force. John McCain and Barack Obama are sparring on a number of topics, but remarkably there is one issue on which they agree: “taking on” Big Pharma.
However, it is their support, not attacks, that the industry really needs. Drug companies today are in their most precarious positions ever; budgets are being cut and employees are being let go in record numbers. Investors, realizing this, have taken the market caps of nearly all the major U.S. drug companies down dramatically — Merck and Pfizer, the traditional industry leaders, have each lost about half their value since the beginning of this decade.
We can no longer assume that this industry will continue to pursue the business model that created many of today’s medical miracles and enabled many others. Anyone reading this might already be familiar with the numbing economics of the drug business today. It takes an average of one to two billion dollars to bring a new drug to market and a decade or more to develop it. On top of this, nearly every project that begins in the laboratory ends in disappointment. This, more than any other reason, is why nearly every new therapy is invented and developed in the private sector. Governments and academia lack the stamina to sustain repeated and expensive failures.
Politicians who really care about our future, our health and our happiness should today be worried that the drug industry won’t be able to fulfill its mission, that it won’t keep supplying us with the new drugs and vaccines that we need to keep our healthcare system functioning and solvent in the face of the massive influx of the aging Baby Boomers.
The Baby Boomers are coming, and they are bringing with them chronic conditions as they age in numbers we’ve never seen before. Take Alzheimer’s disease for example. More than one in 10 people who live past age 60 will become a victim of the disease, and for those who live past 80, the figure approaches half. The Alzheimer’s Association projects that treatment costs for Medicaid alone will increase by $100 billion per year from 2005 to 2015.
The Boomers also bring something new to healthcare: an absolute belief that they are entitled to the best care available. This sense of entitlement and their willingness to use their political and legal power to get it means that demand for sophisticated healthcare will skyrocket in the years ahead.
The only realistic way we can satisfy the needs and expectations for healthcare over the next three decades is with new technology, new drugs, new biologicals and new vaccines. We need meaningful treatments for Alzheimer’s, congestive heart failure, cancer and all the other conditions for which current treatments are still vastly inadequate. It is in the laboratories of the drug companies who are today investing over $40 billion each year on R&D where these advances will happen. These companies — who are putting billions on the line into high-risk projects to improve public health — need a government that understands that they deserve to make a good economic return when they are successful.
But there is little hope that you’ll hear any of this from either campaign this fall; the “get tough” rhetoric polls too well. Maybe when the campaign is over, our new president will realize that we need to nurture pharmaceutical innovation, not attack it.