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Does a pandemic change public perception of the life science industry?

3 Minutes

Despite being an industry that serves the general population, the pharmaceutical industry ha...

By George Kyriacou

Associate Consultant

Despite being an industry that serves the general population, the pharmaceutical industry has always polarised public opinion, faced antitrust scrutiny and had business practice continually under fire. Now, with the effort against Covid-19 dominating headlines for close to two years, pharmaceutical companies have now become household names. Unsurprisingly, as more people become aware of these firms, the stronger an opinion forms on the industry. ​ ​ Pre-pandemic, the UK public perception of the pharmaceutical sector was dubious with the pharma industry scoring just 44 on the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, a reputation calculator, putting them in the untrusted category. The UK aren’t alone in having poor public perception of the pharma market, public in the US also had a negative attitude towards the pharmaceutical industry. According to Gallup’s 2019 report, the pharma industry was ranked worst when it came to Americans’ views of the sector, unseating the US federal government as the lowest rated industry that year (which it had held since 2011). ​ ​ Two years later, and there has been somewhat of a shift in attitudes towards the pharmaceutical sector, as an industry-wide effort to eradicate coronavirus has focused public attention on the effort the sector goes to in the name of public health. Now, recent studies by the Pew Research Center and Wissenschaft im Dialog have shown a significant increase in public trust of the pharma industry, most notably in Germany and the US, and it’s looking as though that perception is at a net positive globally, too - a recent APCO Worldwide survey found that 52% of respondents now have a more positive perception towards the industry than before the pandemic began. ​ The sector’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on public perception. The APCO Worldwide survey, conducted 8 months before the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved in the UK, found that 68% of respondents were optimistic that the pharmaceutical industry would develop a treatment for COVID-19. ​ Professionals within the industry have also noticed the change in attitude, with Eva Prieschl-Grassauer, Chief Scientific Officer at Austrian respiratory and allergy company Marinomed, crediting the shift in attitude to the sector’s “fast reaction to the pandemic and focus on the development of vaccines”. Some believe this newfound positive public perception will last. The CEO and co-founder of a Swiss-German cancer immunotherapy firm VAXIMM, Heinz Lubenau, states that the industry has demonstrated its value to both health care systems and the economy, anticipating that the appreciation will last. “In the light of the mutations, competition for effective medicines will continue and public awareness of the biotech sector will be maintained". ​ But some question the durability of this buzz. Shahar Silbershatz, CEO of reputational analytics company Caliber, states that the “attention afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to emphasise [the pharmaceutical industry’s] importance and potentially repair their reputation”, but warns it also could be their downfall if not handled correctly. With the rapid speed of bringing a COVID-19 vaccine to market, people may now expect that ‘miracle’ treatments or vaccines will come out for other illnesses just as fast - this leaves a high potential for disappointment and could prove to be reputationally harmful. ​ The pandemic has affected both those who have had the virus and those who have not. The speed that the pharmaceutical industry, regulatory bodies and governments worldwide have dealt with the virus helped to deliver vaccines in record time and save many lives, which could be enough to ensure this new-found appreciation and confidence in the industry is here to stay.
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