We here at The IN VIVO Blog probably get a little bit too caught up in our own blathering. As a tonic, we'll be inviting some outsiders to contribute. As here: to get an investor's point of view on the industry, we asked T. Rowe Price biotech analyst Jay Markowitz, MD to share some of his thoughts.
The industry's woes boil down to a single cause: inadequate innovation. It is estimated that by 2015, $200 billion worth of branded drug sales may be lost to generic competition. The 24 new drugs approved by the FDA in 2008 was the highest number since 2004; only nine came from multinational drug companies. This meager number can replenish but a fraction of pending lost sales.
The poor record of new drug approvals can’t be blamed on a lack of R&D spending. Last year the major pharmaceutical companies spent over $50 billion on drug discovery and development. If current trends are any guide, the $1 billion estimated cost per new drug now will seem like a bargain in the future.
The industry finds itself in such a predicament because it can no longer go after me-too drugs in such blockbuster categories as ulcer medicines, blood pressure pills, antidepressants, and cholesterol lowering agents. Pharmaceutical companies previously had the luxury of letting someone else take the risk of innovation; if that someone succeeded, the drug company could follow fast with a similar drug that might have some advantages. It paid more to imitate than create. With minimal clinical differentiation of their products, companies needed to spend heavily on marketing to drive sales. But it was more profitable to spend on drug promotion than drug creation.
That equation is changing. Now that cheap generics and multiple branded drugs are available in many therapeutic categories, innovation may end up being all that pays.
To reverse its current plight and not only survive but thrive in the future, industry leaders must accept the gravity of their situation and address its root cause.
First, they must recognize that innovation is more about people than process; it can neither be scaled nor industrialized. Drug companies ought to pare back internal research, foster a more entrepreneurial culture, and be more open-minded about accessing research done by others. Far more productive to divide a $1 billion research investment among ten to twenty small, scrappy, hungry companies than to concentrate in one that is big and complacent.
Second, they need to leverage their strengths in drug development and regulatory affairs. Whereas smaller companies may be more adept at discovering novel drugs, testing them in people and getting them approved put a premium on money, manpower, and experience. Because they are constrained by capital and limited know how, all too often smaller companies make mistakes by under-investing in clinical trials or pursuing needlessly risky approval strategies. Pharmaceutical companies should grasp the opportunity to partner with smaller companies in the middle phases of human testing, thereby providing the necessary money and expertise to minimize the chance that a drug fails because it was developed for the wrong indication or because of poor planning and execution. Good new drugs are too precious to delay or waste.
Third, they should embrace comparative-effectiveness testing and value-based drug pricing to support the argument for first- or best-in-class drugs. Although such a strategy would result in higher clinical attrition, clear product differentiation would reduce the need for sales and marketing. Far better for data, not advertising, to determine which drugs are prescribed.
And fourth, they should not view mega-mergers as a solution. Yes, in the short term, consolidation can increase sales and, by reducing redundant costs, profits. And it can bring new capabilities to the acquirer. But it will ultimately disappoint unless it redresses fundamental problems. For a merger between two big pharmaceutical companies to generate long term value, it must result in more novel drugs than each would have created separately.
From my point of view as an investor, the drug industry -- despite its challenges -- is ideally positioned to translate tremendous gains in chemistry, biology, and genetics into important new medicines that extend lives and reduce suffering. But it must discard its risk-averse and xenophobic culture, embrace the drug discovery work taking place in hundreds of creative, entrepreneurial companies, and recognize that constant innovation is its only hope for sustainable growth. The good news is that there are ample opportunities to succeed. Several pharmaceutical companies are already taking appropriate steps to revive their businesses. But these steps must be bigger and faster.