As a dazed Japan copes with the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake, Japanese pharma companies have been quick to offer donations of both money and medical supplies and help with aid efforts. Takeda has pledged 300m Japanese Yen ($3.6m) to the Japanese Red Cross Society to help the emergency relief fund, as well as offering donations of products. Eisai is giving 200 million Yen (about $2.4 million) and will establish a crisis centre in the Tohoku region. Daiichi Sankyo announced it would donate 100m Japanese Yen ($1.2m), along with medical supplies to affected areas; the company is also implementing a programme to match donations made by its employees. Astellas and Chugai Pharmaceutical have both offered 100m Japanese Yen.
As for the pharma giants outside Japan, Merck, Abbott, Lilly, J&J, Amgen and GSK have all contributed more than $1 million each to relief efforts, Mark Grayson, a spokesman for PhRMA, told Pharm Exec. He added: “In country offices are responding to product requests.”
But the global industry reaction seems equally preoccupied with the implications of the devastation on the stock market. According to Leerink Swann analyst Seamus Fernandez, of the top pharma companies, Pfizer, Merck, Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi Aventis receive 7% to 8% of their sales and 9% to 10% of their earnings per share from Japan. Bristol-Myers Squibb is the least exposed, with 3% of sales coming from Japan, while Novartis has the most exposure.
There are also understandable fears about the longer-term implications of the catastrophe on public spending. The massive cost of the clean-up operation — currently guesstimated as anything between $35 billion and $170 billion — will sharply exacerbate Japan’s existing deficit and result in further pressure on healthcare spending. On Monday, Japan’s central bank pumped $184 billion into the country’s money markets in an attempt to salvage some economic stability, but this was before the extent of the nuclear meltdown was known. Japan already lost its position as the world’s second biggest economy last year (to China). While the fallout from the earthquake will weaken this position still further, it is too early to say at the moment just how far the economic damage will go before recovery kicks in.
In the midst of the potential nuclear meltdown, the disaster in Japan has begun to have a marked influence on US pharma as regards companies developing treatments for radiation poisoning. (Various US producers of such treatments have seen their stock rise in the last couple of days.) One US supplier, NukePills.com, has stepped forward and donated 50,000 tablets of potassium iodide — which shields the thyroid from radioactive iodine — to a disaster-relief team. But, as the Associated Press points out, these pills were “not suitable for US retail sale because of packaging issues and expiration dates.”
More worryingly, the meltdown threat has led to a spike in demand for potassium iodide in parts of North America, the AP reports. This is despite the danger being located over 5000 miles away from California and western Canada. Local health agencies and experts have been trying to quell the fears; the British Columbian health minister was obliged on Tuesday to announce that the region does “not expect any health risk following the nuclear reactor releases in Japan, nor is the consumption of potassium iodide tablets a necessary precaution.” Nevertheless, Alan Morris, President of Anbex Inc. (Williamsburg, VA), a leading supplier of potassium iodide, told AP: “I can’t tell you how many women are calling up in tears.” His company has since sold out its supply of 14-pill packages.
The irony in all this is that potassium iodide does not even serve as a general radiation antidote. What use it does have, however, would be far better employed on the ground in Japan than in the suburbs of California. Hopefully, that misplaced hysteria will soon blow over and all global healthcare efforts can properly focus on joining Big Pharma and helping to manage the crisis.
To donate to the Japanese earthquake relief fund, visit the Red Cross Japan Tsunami Appeal.