Perhaps it is true that any press is good press. No one likes bad press, especially when others in the same field are receiving positive press. Negative news for some pharmaceutical companies is especially disconcerting.
Between Pfizer's (PFE) birth control concerns, Novartis' (NVS) over the counter drug recalls and the Gilenya investigation, and a surge of good news for the smaller cap companies such as Regeneron (REGN) and Biogen Idec (BIIB), the biggest of the big pharmaceutical companies have been seeing less of 2012's sector growth than each would like. Year to date, IBB, NASDAQ's healthcare ETF, is up over 16%. Larger market caps such as Abbott (ABT), Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Pfizer, and Novartis namely, are missing out on the sector growth. Coupled with talk of biosimilars and a multitude of revenue generating drugs coming off patents soon, the feeling for Big Pharma isn't as celebratory.
The January 30 announcement of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation $785 million funding of a collaborative project to eradicate 10 neglected tropical diseases by 2020 brought some good news for some companies in need of just that. The project, according to the announcement, will involve a star studded celebrity telethon-like line up of Big Pharma's biggest stars, headed by GlaxoSmithKlein's (GSK) CEO Andrew Witty. In addition to GSK, Abbott, Sanofi (SNY), AstraZeneca (AZN), Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eisai (OTCPK:ESALY), Johnson & Johnson, Novartis and Pfizer are included in the project.
Witty stated thar "no one company or organization can do it alone. Today, we pledge to work hand-in-hand to revolutionize the way we fight these diseases now and in the future." Targeted diseases include Guinea Worm disease, African Sleeping Sickness and other parasitic worm infections and to cultivate "self-sufficiency and overcome the need for aid," according to Bill Gates. Without much monetary benefit perceived from the research and development into treatments for these third world diseases, focus of research has rested with academia until recently. Now with the pooled resources, the World Health Organization championed the initiative with director general Margaret Chan stating she is "confident that almost all (the diseases) can be eliminated or controlled by the end of this decade."
What this announcement brings in human interest won't be matched in direct profit margin. The normally competitive nature of the drug companies will take a back seat, as this effort is not for profit. Not to be a pessimist, but little is done in the corporate world without consideration for the effects on the bottom line. In addition to tax benefits and a potential opportunity to recruit some of academia's most talented researchers in the field, this initiative brokers some positive PR for a sector whose largest stars could use it. Could Big Pharma experience a career resurgence akin to a talented actor, riddled with rehab stints and regrettable roles, having the come-back part of a lifetime to become beloved when all the odds were against him? Public opinion is a powerful and sometimes fickle entity.
Pharmaceutical companies do, after all, have the recent history of targeting an audience beyond those with MDs. The largest consumer segment, Generation X-ers and Millennials, are somewhat skeptical of perceived corporate influence and information pertaining to healthcare. The highly educated Millennial generation, just now entering the research and investment arenas, have an especially high opinion of activism and global change.
In fact, this move brings us to an interesting point where consumerism and the biotechnology could intersect as knowledge of pharmaceuticals, science and disease is higher than any generation prior. This is, after all, the generation that among other things has helped the RED movement generate over $180 million for the Global Fund to help eliminate AIDS in Africa with a blend of marketing, politics and discretionary income. The RED movement has offered a chance for the younger generations to express their philanthropic leanings with fashionable products such as those from Apple (AAPL), Gap (GPS), Nike (NKE) and Starbucks (SBUX). In turn, marketing partners have gained association with not just a product, but also a global movement and lifestyle. To this point, young people are turning somewhat of a deaf ear to healthcare reform and information, citing disillusionment and lack of perceived control. Could cross over marketing work to shift that?
It was once inconceivable to imagine prescription drugs being advertised to the consumer. After all, physicians, not patients, know best. But over 15 years after direct to consumer advertisements began, industry wide marketing budgets have risen over 330% and revenues of drugs for non-essential conditions such as erectile dysfunction and allergy treatments bring in great profits. Pharmaceuticals and consumerism already intersect. A regeneration of faith in pharmaceutical companies, whose names have been advertised on TV commercials to the cynical youth of today almost since birth, could come with more philanthropic movements to target diseases of the poor abroad. Is it really off base to consider a growth avenue for large pharmaceuticals may include synergistic marketing of drugs, consumerism and political activism? Time will tell.