Silly me. I thought that 2003 was a bad year for the drug industry, and said so here a year ago. How was I to know that 2004 would make it look like a bowl full of strawberry ice cream? That trend had better not continue, or by about 2007 I'm going to be wearing a paper hat and standing behind a french-fry machine.
On one level, things can't continue to deteriorate the way they did this year. The world still needs pharmaceuticals, and it still doesn't have any way to get them other than from the drug companies (large and small.) Those drugs are going to continue to have side effects (large and small!), and regulatory agencies, doctors, and patients are going to have decide case by case if those are acceptable risks or not. We can't just pull everything off the market and start over. There's no "over" to start from. So in that sense, at least, things can't go on like this.
But there are some bad events coming toward us as if they were riding on rails. Celebrex is in trouble, clearly, and I'll sit down to a bowl of gym-sock soup if Novartis isn't delaying - or canceling - their own COX-2 launch. Crestor is in trouble, too, which means that AstraZeneca may have to decide what they want to do this year: take on Lipitor in a mighty struggle, or be the second company to have their statin yanked from the market. (They can ask the folks from Bayer how much fun that is.) And there are other companies and drugs with problems, which we'll be talking about in the coming weeks (hi, Lilly!)
Merck's already laying off people, and I suspect that they're going to end up laying off even more. Pfizer and AstraZeneca are going to have to follow suit if their compounds get pulled, which would make this a truly awful time to try to find a job in the pharmaceutical industry. The last time we went through something like this was during the uncertainly of the Clinton health care plan proposal, and people were holding on to their jobs with every adhesive at hand.
That wasn't a good time to go for that big promotion or pay raise, for those of you who weren't around back then. At some companies, the attitude was "Raise? You're lucky you have a job," and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of that again. (I remember being asked to hand out a 0.8% pay raise to one of my direct reports back then, which was a pretty memorable experience for both of us. I advised him not to spend it all in one place.)
But you know, we came out of that one. And we can come out of this situation, too. Some good clinical results, some decent product launches over the next couple of years, a few months without a major product going down in a buzzing cloud of lawsuits - is all that too much to ask? We're going to find out. I advise my readers in the industry to just try to hang on - we're going to be telling stories about this era for a long time, and we just need to hack our way through to the other side of it.
My other advise is going to sound a bit perverse, but it's sincere: if any of you research types have been harboring some odd ideas, some out-of-the-ordinary stuff that's seemed too risky to try - well, now's the time. We're going to need some new magic tricks, and they might as well come from you. This might seem like the worst time to take chances in the lab, but no one thinks about doing that stuff when times are good. It's mother-of-invention time, folks. Let's get cranking - the job you save may be your own.