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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 8, 2006

Garnier Strikes Back

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Posted by Derek

I haven't said anything about the recent film "The Constant Gardener". Truth be told, I had no desire to call any more attention to it. True to John le Carre's source novel, the story involves a brutal, corrupt international pharmaceutical conspiracy, which destroys the lives of poor Africans and kills critics who get in its way. As someone who's worked in the industry, I found that pretty hard to take. The dress code at the drug companies doesn't mandate white robes, but they sure aren't any blacker than the ones for any other business.

I see, though, that Jean-Pierre Garnier of GSK finally was moved to say a few words about the film. (And no, he didn't call it the feel-good popcorn flick of the year). He wasn't as harsh as I would have been:

"None of the scenario elements and plots in this movie have any relation to reality. . .It is a nice piece of fiction, let's enjoy it. It's entertainment, but it's not what we are all about."

I can't imagine that he found it very entertaining. It's hard to enjoy yourself when you've just paid money to see the way you earn your living depicted as evil and destructive. Positive reviews of the film have mostly either ignored its politics (and concentrated on the Acting) or praised it for its "mature" "socially conscious" approach to teaching us all our lessons. Spare me.

I believe that it was Ben Stein who once said that only in Hollywood could you have a setup of a murdered drug dealer in a dangerous neighborhood, with the villian turning out to be a wealthy businessman from the suburbs. Portraying an industry, which is actually saving and trying to save millions of people from suffering, as an assortment of amoral killers is the same formula. It's isn't new, and it isn't shocking. It isn't brave, and it isn't true.

(Note: if you're a subscriber the The Atlantic Monthly, this column by Clive Crook on the depiction of capitalism in the movies is worth a look).

Comments (12) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Why Everyone Loves Us


1. Kay on February 9, 2006 6:30 AM writes...

You forgot to sprinke the appropriate "in developed economies" disclaimer in a few places.

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2. Demosthenes by day on February 9, 2006 11:38 AM writes...

Is there any surprise? The pharmaceutical industry has become one of the least trusted industries in the US. As a member of a profession and industry I am very proud to work in; it frustrates me that the industry PR arm, the PhRMA, does such a poor, poor job of getting out the positives of our industry. Every time I've seen a representative of PhRMA as a representative on CNN, Fox news, etc. they look like deer in the headlights and just get steamrolled by the opposition. As someone who has had the experience of meeting people for whom the drugs, that I've personally been involved in, have made a difference in their lives. It just seems to me like the right people could learn to accentuate these kinds of stories. The only thing I'm sure of is the PhRMA is not any part of the solution and the ineffectiveness of the organization might be part of the problem.

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3. m on February 9, 2006 12:41 PM writes...

I've given a lot of thought about why our industry is so negatively perceived and at what point this happened and I've come to the conclusion that the advent of direct to consumer advertising marked the beginning of the end with respect to our reputation. Prior to DTC, the face of the pharmaceutical industry was your local doctor. Since the advent of DTC the perception is that we're more interested in profits than patients. Maybe the old adage, "you reap what you sow" applies here. Just a thought and maybe the seed of a new topic to discuss.

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4. Palo on February 9, 2006 2:44 PM writes...

Is there really a lot of thinking to put in to why the the industry is villified? How about the price of medicines? How about the corrupt clinical trials in developing countries? How about the misleading studies published in the NEJM or JAMA, or the misleading ads pretending Clarinex is any better than Claritin?
Look, there is a lot good to be said about an industry that carries society's hopes for a longer and better life, but there's also plenty to say about the abuses the industry engages in. Of course, it is wrong and irresponsible to put all the industry in the same bag, but to call on the bad apples is not a bad thing. In fact, I do agree that PhRMA might be bad for the industry, but not in the ways mentioned. I think that by opting for a blanket representation of the entire business by PhRMA, the industry as a whole gets depicted as careless and greedy because of the most public cases in which PhRMA gets involved, usually those cases in which the public concerns are clear and legitimate.

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5. Mark Atwood on February 9, 2006 4:18 PM writes...

Palo, can you expand on "corrupt clinical trials in developing countries". Are you saying the trials are poorly done, that they have bad data? Or do you think that the very existance of clinical trials in developing countries is corrupt, and that your "white man's burden" is to protect those all the poor dumb brown people from doing what they want?

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6. Palo on February 9, 2006 4:55 PM writes...

I'll set aside your inane (bordering the offensive in fact) speculations on my motives and go straight to the question.

I don't think it is a surprise to you or anyone to hear of corruption in clinical trials in developing countries. I'm not talking about bad data, but mostly about ethically corrupt procedures. There was a whole series of articles running a few years ago in The Washington Post (I believe it was called "The Body Hunters" or something like that) that dealt with the issue. If you routinely read NEJM or, better yet, the BJM, you find many examples of for corrupted trials in India, Africa and Latin America. I know a bit about clinical trials in Argentina, a place where, for the most part, clean, good, clinical studies are carried out. If you approach a doctor working in a public hospital who makes $300/month, and offer him/her $1,000 for each patient he brings to a clinical study, what do you think happens? Do you see the potential for unqualified patients to be enrolled anyway? Well, the potential is reality. It happens a lot more than you would care to know.
This is only one example. There hundreds. And I'm not even getting into the morality of some placebo trials in dying populations in Africa.
Of course, the industry practices the typical don't ask, don't tell policy: they subcontract a recruiting agency and outsource the trials, if there's something wrong, it's someone else's fault.

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7. Palo on February 9, 2006 5:03 PM writes...

"The Body Hunters" series in The Washington Post can be found here:

for anyone to judge whether the racists are the ones blowing the whistle or the ones hiding reality for a paycheck

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8. NJBiologist on February 9, 2006 5:28 PM writes...

The links on the Post series seem broken, but I think I can guess the general tone: the picture next to the links has a caption ending with the dramatic flourish "Some participants in the drug study are given placebos, not real medicine." This doesn't sound like journalism's high water mark.

On the bright side, not all popular media are entirely anti-industry: one of the subplots on this week's installment of The Shield turned on the dangers of unregulated pharmaceutical reimportation.

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9. Joss Delage on February 9, 2006 7:27 PM writes...

Could Palo define for me what he means by "corrupt clinical trials in developing countries"? And I'm not really interested in old newspaper article. I'm more interested in your definition.



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10. Palo on February 10, 2006 1:22 PM writes...

I see that the links within the WaPo website are missing. But I found the whole series in a pdf file in my computer. If interested in reading it, you can download the file from here:

It is an important series to read. It would be foolish to dismiss the problems associated with third world clinical trials as NJBiologist seems to do (even without reading the articles!).

Joss, my definition of corruption goes along the lines I posted before. If you want a better picture of corruption in clinical trials, you really should read the WaPo articles. I don't understand why you would be more interested in my definition than in a week-long reporting on the issue by one of the most respected newspapers in the world, but I am flattered.

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11. Matt on February 11, 2006 2:33 PM writes...

"I've given a lot of thought about why our industry is so negatively perceived and at what point this happened and I've come to the conclusion that the advent of direct to consumer advertising marked the beginning of the end with respect to our reputation."

You sound like a lawyer.

Although the suggestion that a few leaders of a company would look the other way or even actively support physical or financial harm to others in the name of profit is not that outlandish.

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12. mhovde on February 11, 2006 9:56 PM writes...

Demosthenes writes: "it frustrates me that the industry PR arm, the PhRMA, does such a poor, poor job of getting out the positives of our industry."

You can influence public opinion, but it costs money. PhRMA has run TV ads including a lengthy campaign in the late 1990s. It cost about $1M for each percentage point improvement in public polls asking about the industry's reputation. Other industries have found a similar cost per response.

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