PharmExec Blog

Pharma and Haiti: Can Altruism Backfire?

Guest blog by Pharm Exec Europe‘s Jacky Law.

Jacky Law

Jacky Law

Pharma companies are responding swiftly to the recent earthquake in Haiti with millions of dollars in cash and drugs. GlaxoSmithKline boasted, for example, that its initial $1.2 million offering of medicines — mainly oral and topical antibiotics — was on the first airlift to the Caribbean island and that more will follow.

The UK company was not alone. By January 15, the charitable alliance, Partnership for Quality Medical  Donations (PQMD), said a total of $15.5 million (E10.8 million) had been pledged by pharma and other healthcare companies. This comprised $7.3 million in products and $4.6 million in cash, equating to one third of all corporate donations and being roughly equivalent to the £10 million pledged by the UK government.

Some pharma companies, notably Abbott Laboratories, have even been able to use the humanitarian disaster to demonstrate an altruism that extends far beyond this immediate crisis. Together with its philanthropic foundation, the Abbott Fund, the company has pledged an initial $1 million in cash and medicines to the victims of the earthquake, which comes on top of more than $34 million already donated to Haiti since 2007. The current package includes $100,000 in grants to three of its aid partners: the American Red Cross, Partners in Health and the Catholic Medical Mission Board. The company is also working with AmeriCares, Direct Relief International and other organizations to identify what drugs are most needed by the survivors.

Other biopharm companies to have responded to international calls for help include Amgen, which has said it will donate $2 million in cash. Pfizer, which has a base in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, is working with people on the ground to assess what drugs are most needed. It has also made an undisclosed cash donation and pledged to match employee contributions to the disaster fund.

Merck & Co, meanwhile, is giving $350,000 in cash and has also pledged to match employee contributions while planning an immediate shipment of $200,000 worth of medicines, including its ulcer drug, Pepcid, Coricidin cold medicine and ringworm treatment, Lotrimin. Eli Lilly is said to be donating $250,000 in cash and will match its US employees’ contributions. Bristol-Myers Squibb has shipped out a consignment of medicines, mainly antibiotics and analgesics, and donated $200,000 plus a pledge to double what its US employees give. And AstraZeneca has donated antibiotics and respiratory medicines while also giving £100,000 ($162,500) to the British Red Cross effort on the island.

Help or hindrance?
However, the lesson of Johnson & Johnson is that such generosity can be seriously undermined if it coincides with other news that doesn’t go down so well with the public.

According to PQMD, J&J is giving unspecified cash donations to relief organizations working in Haiti, as well as bandages and medicines such as Tylenol and Neosporin. But things have taken a rather sinister turn for the US company that for years has been one of the most trusted in the world. On Friday, January 15, at roughly the same time it was pledging aid for Haiti, the company’s over-the-counter (OTC) division, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, announced the recall of several hundred batches of various popular OTC medicines, including the analgesic Tylenol. This was because of a foul odour emanating from the breakdown of a chemical used to treat the wood pallets used in the storage and distribution processes. It may well be that the Tylenol on its way to Haiti is perfectly fine but the juxtaposition of events only serves to highlight the PR disasters currently plaguing this once exemplary company.

Not only did an FDA warning letter arrive on that Friday saying McNeil had known about the problems for as long as 20 months but, in an entirely separate incident, and on the same day, the US Justice Department filed charges against Johnson & Johnson for allegedly paying “tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks” to nursing home pharmacy company, Omnicare, to increase sales of its drugs, notably the blockbuster antipsychotic Risperdal.

Regarding this latter incident, Johnson & Johnson has said its actions have been “lawful and appropriate” and it looks forward to “airing the facts” in court. Nevertheless, two ‘bad’ stories coming together have the effect of compounding each other, which can cancel out the effect of one ‘good’ act if it also comes at the same time. This is because the point of altruism is to help unreservedly or, at least, for the actions to be perceived that way. Any question that a drug to relieve suffering might be tainted is not helpful.

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