Billy Flynn would have been devastated. For once, the ol’ razzle-dazzle just didn’t work. GlaxoSmithKline, the UK’s largest drug conglomerate, which has grown fatter and fatter acquiring pharmaceutical small fry and selling some of the world’s most dangerous drugs, hired no less a venue than the Imax theatre at Waterloo to present its long-awaited ‘research and development day’ to City analysts on 3 December.
Jean-Pierre Garnier, GSK’s chief executive, and Tachi Yamada, its head of research, made good use of London’s biggest cinema to preview what they promised were a record number of product launches in the next five years. Indeed, they said, the ‘enormous creation of value is just around the corner’.
Ta-DAH! Out were paraded a bevy of gorgeous beauties: new painkillers, better asthma and heart disease treatments – and before your very eyes, a vaccine against cervical cancer! Of their 20 or more new drugs under development, said Garnier, each one could earn the company £600m a year.
This time, however, the City saw through the smoke and mirrors. It was still smarting from an earlier new ‘breakthrough’ colorectal cancer drug from GSK that has so far failed to work, and a number of others that hadn’t even made it through early stages of R & D. In a vote of no confidence, GSK shares closed down 19 p the next day, with some City folks calling GSK a ‘jam tomorrow’ company.
There are those who believe City analysts are just a more mercenary form of psychic and, a week later, that proved to be the case. Garnier had barely walked away with his tail between his legs when one of his senior executives stepped out from behind the Wizard of Oz screen.
At a scientific meeting in London the next week, Allen Roses, GSK’s worldwide VP of genetics, a highly distinguished geneticist known for his bluntness, announced that actually, folks, most of their drugs don’t actually work – and, indeed, nor do anybody else’s.
‘The vast majority of drugs – more than 90 per cent – only work in 30 to 50 per cent of people,’ said Dr Roses. For instance, drugs for Alzheimer’s disease work in fewer than one in three patients; drugs for cancer, in a quarter of patients; drugs for migraines, osteoporosis and arthritis, in about half of patients, he said.
Roses’ indelicate statement has now made many things clear.
It explains why drug companies are hard-selling off-label drugs for children. And, recently, in researching What Vets Don’t Tell You, I was alarmed to find that it is now routine to use the entire armamentarium of modern medicine on pets. NSAIDs, heart drugs, powerful steroids, antibiotics, antidepressants – you name it, and kids and dogs are on it. Chaser drugs – used to counteract the effects of an initial drug – are routine.
The City no longer believes the drug companies, nor do its investors and, in increasing numbers, its customers. No wonder they must move onto the most acquiescent of customer bases. Dogs and six-year-olds have to be viewed as a move of desperation. Of course, this makes the entire enterprise a good deal more insidious. If the ineffectiveness of drugs is an open secret in the drug industry, how could anyone encourage the use of powerful, potentially dangerous drugs on children and animals, knowing all along that it probably isn’t going to work? In any other industry, this would be grounds for imprisonment.
But hey, folks, that’s Chicago.