Jeremy Laurance: He wants to clean up the drug industry? I wish him luck

Medical Life

I contacted a drug company last week – something, I admit, I don't often do. There was a great story about a new meningitis B vaccine, which could lead to the virtual elimination of the disease that has terrorised parents and children for decades, and I wondered what it would cost.

Not exactly a left-field question, you might think. But Novartis, the company behind the breakthrough, seemed unprepared. From the press office, I got the usual brush-off – price undecided, subject to negotiation, no, it wasn't possible to give me a ballpark figure.

As I say, I usually try to avoid calling drug companies because I so rarely get a helpful response. But I had been encouraged by Andrew Witty, the 46-year-old wunderkind who heads GlaxoSmithKline, after he declared in The Times last week that he wanted to clean up the drug industry's image.

Too often, he said, the industry acted "as though it is detached from society", and sometimes "it hasn't helped itself".

He said he wanted his own company to be "trusted and values driven" and that all companies depended for their long-term success on operating "in a way that is in step with society and its expectations".

He seems a decent man and I am sure he is sincere. The problem he identifies is a real one, too – for all the life-saving medicines it has delivered, the industry is secretive, defensive and perceived as putting profits before patients. It is about as popular as the nuclear industry, which is odd.

But can Witty achieve what he has set out to do? He is a major figure and he has made an important declaration. But this is a vast industry with many layers of management below him. Changing the culture will take more than a single speech.

With Witty's words echoing in my mind I persisted with the Novartis press office. OK, I said, could they tell me the cost of the meningitis C vaccine, which the company also makes, introduced a decade ago? A poor substitute, admittedly, for the figure I was really after, but better than nothing.

The press officer said she would enquire. Later, I received an email: "I have looked into the price of our meningitis C vaccine but as it is supplied direct to the Department of Health under contract it is confidential." And there was me thinking the industry was committed to more transparency. Price is, of course, a commercially sensitive issue. But this is a cost that will be borne by the taxpayer and thus a matter of public interest.

I hope Andrew Witty succeeds in his endeavour. But I fear it will not happen in my professional lifetime.

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