Pfizer’s Inability to Show Transparency Impacts Alzheimer’s Research

Nothing brings people together quite like a health crisis. A shared suffering from the affected, and concern from the observing, spur humanity to take action and work towards a common goal of developing a cure.

Every June, the nation goes purple to recognize Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Almost 6 million Americans suffer from the Alzheimer’s, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

The Washington Post chose this time to out Pfizer, a leader of drug research and production, for keeping pertinent data behind closed doors in the fight against Alzheimer’s. A company spokesperson for Pfizer told The Hill, "Our decision not to publish a statistical analysis of insurance claims data, and our decision not to pursue a broader clinical trial in Alzheimer’s disease based on such statistical analysis were based first and foremost on scientific rationale and not on the basis of financial incentives as the story seems to imply."

It’s a bad look for Pfizer, especially during a time when a spotlight shines on the disease. And upon further reading, it can seem somewhat baffling to have kept the information, which may have proved useful to researchers, from the public. Pfizer now faces a brand crisis in which a large population of those affected by the disease may garner distrust to a company that looks like it kept profits the first priority.

Why Hide?

The first question many are asking is: Why keep the data a secret? Pfizer had the potential to create and release a groundbreaking drug that would skyrocket its profits even higher if successful. A long research process and the patent life of drugs played a large part.

The Washington Post reported that, in 2016, “researchers from Dartmouth and Harvard published a study of insurance claims data — similar to Pfizer’s internal findings — that showed a potential benefit of Enbrel.” Pfizer’s medication, Enbrel, treated inflammation in arthritis patients, and also showed “a potential treatment’’ for brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s.

Researchers urged Pfizer to conduct an $80 million clinical trial for more conclusive research, but the company didn’t see the financial benefit. Enbrel’s patent life was expiring and generics would be on the horizon. The company chose to shift focus to a newer inflammation drug with a longer patent and revenue life, Zeljanz.

However, Pfizer told The Post that it followed internal reviews of Enbrel for three years, and decided the drug did not show progress, and “deemed the likelihood of a successful clinical trial to be low.”

“Science was the sole determining factor against moving forward,” said company spokesman Ed Harnaga.

The Cost of Quiet

To many spectators, $80 million seems like a drop-in-the-bucket for a pharmaceutical company worth $54 billion. Without proper transparency to the public, rumors and inaccuracies can run wild, as well as consumer sentiment. Even though Pfizer may have dropped the ball with the initial data release, now is an opportune time for the company to take the reins of the conversation and explain how drug trials work. Conversely, this is not the time to brush this report under the rug.

According to the Alzheimer Association, in 2019 “Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the nation $290 billion, including $195 billion in Medicare and Medicaid payments. Unless a treatment to slow, stop or prevent the disease is developed, in 2050, Alzheimer's is projected to cost more than $1.1 trillion (in 2019 dollars).” For Alzheimer’s patients’ families and their caretakers, that accounts for over $350,000 in lifetime care costs. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September 2017 that average annual household income was $59,039.

“Having acquired the knowledge, refusing to disclose it to those who might act upon it hides a potential benefit, and thereby wrongs and probably harms those at risk of developing Alzheimer’s by impeding research,’’  Bobbie Farsides, professor of clinical and biomedical ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom, told The Washington Post.

The Opportunity

Because of the timing of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, not all is lost for Pfizer. The window of time is short, but open for an opportunity to make this right.

Pfizer's response to The Washington Post attempts to control the narrative by revealing that the company did share data with several select scientists. However, the damage may already be done, with much of the science community voicing the sentiment that Pfizer should have at least published the data, making findings available to all researchers.

Will Pfizer change its drug research policies? Will they cross the aisle and reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association? Will this affect profits? Companies routinely reveal negative effects of products, but what about unexpected positives? Pfizer has a lot of cards to play to reverse perception of the pharmaceutical industry, and essentially, make this right.