New beginnings

Jacky Law

Pharmaceutical Technology Europe

Pharmaceutical Technology Europe, Pharmaceutical Technology Europe-01-01-2009, Volume 21, Issue 1

A new year, all things being equal, is a time of looking to the future with positive intent and traditional bonhomie. At the very least, it suggests new beginnings. As we enter 2009, however, the world is moving into a major recession and things are far from equal.

As an industry, biopharma is relatively well protected relying as it does on the collective, rather than individual, purse. But the winds of change are fairly fierce. Even those who have always considered they have a job and a house for life are feeling a lot less secure as they enter 2009 than they did going into 2008. Those who still have jobs may well be working for new owners. Those who no longer have a regular wage are doubtless plotting a whole new way of life.

Jacky Law

So, in an effort to restore some of the feel-good factor that traditionally accompanies New Year's Day, and as someone who hasn't had a regular wage for years, I want to offer some reasons for optimism:

  • Some big biotechs are doing well. MedImmune, which was bought by AstraZeneca in 2007, is doubling the size of its HQ in Gaithersburg (MD, USA), and hiring staff. Its payroll expanded by 800 in 2008 and will do the same in 2009. Biogen Idec also increased its workforce by 10% last year.

  • Global generic sales should continue to grow, especially after governments start to repair the devastation inflicted from massive spending to bolster the economy. Generics may not be as sexy as the innovative sector, but they still need to be packaged, marketed, distributed and sold, which all translates into jobs. According to Deutsche Bank analyst, Barbar Ryan, twothirds of prescriptions worldwide are now for generic drugs. Two years ago, the figure was approximately 50%.

  • The blockbuster is not dead. When drugs work in areas such as cancer people want them. The EvaluatePharma forecast database shows Roche/Genentech's Avastin will be the number one drug in 2014, with global sales of more than US$12 billion. Moreover, the EvaluatePharma news service, EP Vantage, reports: "Last year [2007], 121 products attained the magical US$1 billion in sales level, while forecasts for 2014 expect 149 drugs to be accorded the same status. Meanwhile, the average annual sales of the top ten drugs in 2007 of US$6.23 billion is set to rise to an average of US$7.04 billion by 2014."

  • The multiblockbuster sales that Avastin is expected to earn are some vindication of Genentech's flexible working policies regarding its researchers. The urgent quest for new breakthroughs may make such thinking more widespread. Companies may be restructuring their R&D effort to be more focused on growth areas, but it is the restructuring of the creative mindset that is arguably more important. Napoleone Ferrara, Avastin's originating scientist, has famously said he was only able to discover how new blood vessels grow to feed a tumour — Avastin's central selling point — because he had been given the time to do so. A policy then in operation at Genentech said that a quarter of a researcher's time should be spent on projects of their own choosing.

  • The high costs accompanying drugs that people actually want should mean the public becomes more engaged in what biopharma companies do. This is already happening with the cancer and Alzheimer's drugs, and it will doubtless continue as other medicines are not reimbursed. Dialogue with the public is, of course, double-edged but, in the UK at least, it is a question of so far, so good with public pressure largely responsible for a recent decision by the National Institute of healthcare and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to reverse a negative finding on four cancer drugs. What public pressure essentially did was raise the bar by which NICE decides if a drug represents value for money for the NHS.

Which brings us back to the subject of new beginnings at the start of 2009. A keen survival instinct latches onto anything that offers hope and works with that to create the new beginnings for themselves and their families. That hope may come from operating in a growth area or in a company large enough to withstand the storm. But it may also come from something much more fundamental that applies even to the most dispensable: that necessity is the mother of invention, no one or nothing changes unless it has to. I know; I have been freelance for years. I also know that not having a job is not the same as being idle.