Muhammad Ali used a brutally effective tactic in some of his greatest fights: the rope-a-dope. Ali would lean against the ropes of whatever ring he was performing in and cover his head and face with his forearms and gloves and let his opponent punch away, on the theory that he was tough enough to take the abuse and his opponent would eventually punch himself out and get tired, giving Ali the opening he was looking for, at which point he would pounce and deliver a knockout blow.
I sometimes think my friends in pharma have studied a lot of Ali fight film. I can think of few industries that take such a regular beating in Congress and in the court of public opinion and yet deliver such routinely miraculous products. (The airline industry comes to mind; people love to complain about the indignities of flying even when they’re delivered to the other side of the continent in five hours for $300, another miracle.) And yet for pharma, there’s no “I am the greatest!” moment.
If ever there were a moment for the pharmaceutical industry to do a little chest thumping, it’s now. The fact that the vaccines went from notion to arms in nine months is, as I’ve written here before, a major miracle that future generations will study, particularly the vaccines that use mRNA technology.
But even if public boasts of success are out of the question, there is one thing the industry should do publicly: use its momentum to press the case for the speedy appointment of an FDA commissioner. The fact that the agency that oversees drug approval has been without a full-time leader during a pandemic is troubling. And the backlog in drug approval hurts patients, and makes it that much harder for the industry to plan appropriately for the future.
It could well be that pharma doesn’t feel the need to boast about its work because the work speaks for itself. But there will never be a better opportunity to make friends, both on the Hill and in the public, than right now. The industry will never have more political capital than it does now when — admittedly, aided by removal of many of the most onerous development roadblocks — it provided the cure to a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the world.
Imagine if pharma said, out loud: Imagine what else we can do if we streamline processes and give us leadership that can help, not hurt, human health. And imagine what we can do with a commissioner who understands and values us as partners, not adversaries.
Now that’s a knockout punch.