An influential group of industry critics has reshuffled its listing of Big Pharma companies, lauding some big players like Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) for improving access to therapies and promoting R&D on neglected diseases while handing out worsening grades to many others. And the entire industry earned a black eye for outsourcing more of their drug development efforts without safeguards to make sure the work being done for them is safe and ethical.
The Access to Medicine Index--which draws support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others--lauded the industry for its growing willingness to provide deep discounts on its drugs, though the opaque pricing mechanisms in use make it hard to determine just what's going on. But the index is openly skeptical that many companies are actually walking the walk when it comes to their ethics policies on outsourcing R&D when only a handful can cite actual instances of disciplinary action for misconduct.
"There's an increasing trend to outsource clinical trials--but as is always the case with outsourcing, the relationship between the two parties needs to be extremely tightly defined and managed carefully," said author David Sampson, according to the BBC report. "While most companies talk about codes of conduct and audit, only four companies disclosed details of disciplinary action that had taken place when conduct had fallen short. Regulatory regimes in developing countries are more variable--and anything putting patients at risk is an unacceptable practice and a significant concern."
The index uses a set of 6 standards to grade the work of the top 20 pharma companies in the world. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) remains in the top position this year, with J&J jumping into the No. 2 slot, in part because of its acquisition of vaccine maker Crucell. Sanofi ($SNY), Merck ($MRK) and Gilead Sciences ($GILD) round out the top 5. Struggling AstraZeneca ($AZN), though, slipped significantly, down to No. 16. Boehringer-Ingelheim (17), Novartis (7) and Roche (10) all dropped as well. The bottom of the league is dominated by Japanese companies: Takeda, Daiichi and Astellas.
Of all the companies, GlaxoSmithKline has been one of the most consistent in recent years when it comes to access and R&D initiatives aimed at neglected diseases. The pharma giant has been one of the leaders in the field, offering new programs to open up its R&D process and encouraging investigators to freely use its work to accelerate new therapies. In many ways GSK has set the pace for the rest of the industry, with mixed responses from some big players.