Magazine Article | October 1, 2016

Social Media Fans Flames Of Biopharma Blunders

Source: Life Science Leader

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

What do Pokémon Go, Penn State, and Mylan CEO Heather Bresch have in common? All serve as recent examples of social media’s (SM) ability to exponentially accelerate public awareness of various phenomena, while also revealing something else — bad judgment.

This past summer, the Pokémon Go mobile app took the world by storm. We quickly read reports of people crashing their cars while playing the game and other forms of bad judgment including folks (old enough to know better) playing in areas such as the Arlington National Cemetery, the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan, and yes, even the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

But even the power of social media couldn’t prevent Pokémon Go from fading out of the limelight faster than the ice bucket challenge.

Nonetheless, social media remains a powerful tool, especially for shining a spotlight on bad behavior. In August, members of the Penn State football team allegedly bought about $1,200 of food from sub shop Jimmy John’s. Apparently, they neglected to tip for the delivery, and a disgruntled Jimmy John’s employee took to Twitter to voice his dissatisfaction. In days gone by, such social faux pas would have had zero (if any) negative impact on a sports team or even a company. Today, however, social media affords Jimmy and Jane Q. Public a much larger opinion-sharing forum — essentially leveling the communications playing field between the masses and those typically afforded mass-media access (e.g., politicians, celebrities).

Last summer the media had a field day when Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli increased the price of Daraprim by 5,000 percent. So I was surprised that this year, with an impending U.S. presidential election that has drug pricing as one of its hottest issues, Mylan decided to raise the price of its EpiPen by 32 percent. Could that have waited? Considering Mylan recently announced that it would soon begin selling a generic EpiPen for $300, which is less than half the price of its $608.21 branded product, one would think — yes. Look, I don’t begrudge any pharmaceutical company from pricing a product at the optimal point that a market will bear as long as it still provides good value to customers and a reasonable return for investors. And yes, Mylan CEO, Heather Bresch did make some good points about the true nature of drug pricing during a CNBC interview (e.g., a drug’s price is the result of “four or five hands that the product touches and companies that it goes through before it ever gets to that patient at the counter”). But the reality is America won’t listen to this type of rhetoric, no matter how legitimate it might be. Still, Americans certainly seem willing to rally behind the various forms of social media currently being used to bury the industry. For example, Bernie Sanders’ August 28, 2016, tweet, “Heather Bresch’s willingness to put profits before people is unforgivable and reckless: EpiPens save lives,” (as of this writing) had been retweeted more than 1,500 times, with over 2,800 likes, meaning the message is reaching well beyond his 3.3 million followers. Only a few days later, Hillary Clinton unveiled her plan to stop price gouging on old drugs, calling the EpiPen price hikes “outrageous.” Though social media has proven all too capable of fanning the flames of biopharma price-hiking blunders, one has to wonder how much fuel should biopharmaceutical executives continue to provide. For while rising prices and inflation are a part of life (much like death and taxes), biopharma leaders need to weigh carefully the shortterm gains versus long-term impact on a company’s overall reputation such product price hikes can have when placed under the powerful (and sometimes slanted) lens of the social media microscope.