Big pharma companies are the industry everyone loves to hate, or at least in the case of the media. It’s not hard to see why. The industry is repeatedly rocked by scandals of companies bribing doctors and allegations of malpractice, making it an easy target for shock headlines. The industry’s latest woes come in the form of the governments’ £500million bill for allegedly ineffective flu drugs.
Back in 2005, when the swine-flu epidemic hysteria reached its peak, the UK Government started stockpiling Tamiflu, a drug created by Roche and touted as the best hope in avoiding a major flu outbreak. Come 2014 a Cochrane review reveals that Roche did not release all of their trial research, which is in fact entirely legal, and its drug is perhaps not as effective as first suggested.
Cue media outrage, finger pointing and headlines demanding to know why tax payers’ money is being squandered on useless drugs. Seeing these headlines you’d be forgiven for thinking that the media had argued all along that the drugs were a waste of money. However, looking back it appears that many headlines carry the tell-tale symptoms of hypocrisy. As Oliver Wright at the Independent points out, during the swine flu panic headlines were screaming for the Government to purchase Tamiflu to defend against an outbreak.
What are we to make of this? We know shocking headlines catch eyes and sell papers and some are indeed guilty of over-dramatising the story… but in the case of scandalous healthcare stories where is a journalist to look for the real answers? The jury is still out on whether Tamiflu is effective in treating flu symptoms. Various regulatory bodies and doctors say it is useless, whilst others claim it’s a perfectly good treatment. Let’s not forget this drug has the necessary regulatory approval. It’s only due to the passing comments of a doctor and the belligerence of the BMJ that the research was even questioned. So if all the regulatory bodies and research, at the time, backed the use of Tamiflu it seems only right that journalists would jump on the bandwagon, only to be swept up in later controversies.
The healthcare industry by nature is about the long-play. Research evolves and unforeseen issues in treatments can take years, even decades to arise. So perhaps this should serve as a cautionary tale of over-dramatising healthcare stories in favour of a little discretion and foresight into how the story could play out later down the line.