How Covid-19 is shifting the reputation of pharmaceutical companies

The race for a Covid-19 vaccine throughout 2020 has put pharmaceutical companies under unprecedented pressure and public scrutiny. With Pfizer and Moderna both recently announcing that their Coronavirus vaccines are more than 90% effective, circumstances have given the pharmaceutical industry, long marred by reputational challenges in the US, a unique opportunity to prove itself to the American public. A smooth rollout of a vaccine could help shift the focus from the industry’s role in driving up drug prices and the Opioid crisis. We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 US adults between October 26th and 30th to investigate how Covid-19 has impacted Americans’ perceptions of the industry so far.

The American public’s interest in the process by which pharma companies develop and discover new drugs, treatments, and medications has increased since Covid-19. While less than 1 in 5 Americans (19%) said they were very or extremely interested in this process before Covid-19, that number has risen to over a third of Americans (36%) since the start of the pandemic. Whereas a third (32%) of the population previously said they weren’t interested at all, that number has now dropped to 1 in 5 (20%). This lift in interest has been especially pronounced among the older population (Americans aged 55+), who are notably at higher risk of complications from Covid-19. Among this population, the percentage that is very or extremely interested in the process has increased from 17% to 43% since Covid-19 (a 26 percentage point lift). Half of Americans (50%) say Covid-19 has made them pay more attention to ongoing clinical trials and news about treatments in development (e.g., by reading articles, etc). This is compared to only 10% who say they are paying less attention.

Covid-19 seems to be having a net positive effect on the reputation of pharmaceutical companies. Specifically, 27% of Americans say Covid-19 has made them trust pharmaceutical companies more than before compared to 15% who say it has made them trust pharma companies less than before. And over a third of Americans (35%) say their overall perception of pharma companies has gotten better since Covid-19. This is compared to only 10% who say it has gotten worse and 55% who say their perception has remained unchanged.

So where do pharma companies stand now? Overall, Americans seem to view pharma companies pretty positively at the moment with 38% saying they believe pharma companies are mostly good for society. This is a larger percentage than the 15% who believe they are mostly bad for society. The largest chunk of Americans believe that pharma companies are both good and bad for society in equal measure (47% hold this view).  Pharmaceutical companies have the most work to do to shift perceptions among younger Americans aged 18-34 who think pharmaceutical companies are mostly bad for society at over twice the rate of Americans aged 55+ (20% vs. 9%, respectively).

Assuming the rollout of a Coronavirus vaccine is smooth and prompt, the data suggests that pharmaceutical companies should continue to benefit reputationally from their role in helping provide a solution to the global pandemic. However, if high prices restrict access to the vaccines, as some are already predicting, we may see common criticisms of the industry around price gouging become even more entrenched.