The last 18 months have been a tremendous reminder of the positive impact that American health care innovation delivers for patients when stakeholders work together.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a terrible tragedy that challenged all of us. But the way the American health system has stepped up to that challenge is inspiring. From manufacturing and distributing personal protective equipment, to finding innovative ways to provide care to people affected by COVID-19, to racing to develop and deliver therapeutics and vaccines — every part of the health system heard and heeded the call.
The crown jewel of this response has been the rapid development, manufacturing, distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccines. As of writing, more than 330 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the United States.
This has required collaboration and partnership on a global scale. Biopharmaceutical companies drove development and clinical trial recruitment at record pace, and they rapidly expanded their manufacturing capacity. Wholesalers and distributors spent months preparing to seamlessly deliver this important vaccine to hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies across the nation. Health departments, pharmacies, hospitals and clinics created sign-up options for patients and put millions of shots into Americans’ arms.
The government played a crucial role too. It invested in innovation — rather than erecting barriers — and partnered with the private sector to accelerate this historic effort.
It’s an incredible example of how the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry adds tremendous value to patients’ lives. It also shows the impact we can have together when we work in a policy environment that incentivizes innovation, reduces unnecessary regulation, and strikes a balance between innovation and the efficient use of dollars.
Consider the impact on patients’ lives that we see today as a result of prior investments: for six of the top seven leading causes of death and disability in 1995, such as lung cancer, HIV and ischemic heart disease, we are now seeing improved patient outcomes through cost-effective treatments. Promising innovation for interventions in other conditions, such as sickle cell and autoimmune diseases, is expected to lead to improved lives for patients in the years to come.
The challenges of the last 18 months further highlight the incredible impact of advances in biopharmaceuticals. They are a reminder that policies that disincentivize innovation pose long-term risks to patient health, and risk leaving scientific breakthroughs undiscovered. The mRNA platform used by the first two Food and Drug Administration-authorized COVID vaccines was built out over years of research. Imagine a world in which that innovation hadn’t been studied and wasn’t ready to be used to bring those vaccines across the finish line. That’s not a world that would serve patients well.
This all reminds us of something we’ve always known but often forget: Innovation matters. A 2019 National Pharmaceutical Council study found that physicians attributed more than half of patient outcome improvements on the eight leading causes of death to innovative medicines, far more than any other intervention, including diagnostic testing, medical devices or surgical procedures.
And Harvard researchers last year examined the most significant health interventions that contributed to the 3.3-year life expectancy increase in the United States between 1990 and 2015. Their findings showed that innovative pharmaceuticals accounted for 35% of the improvements, behind only public health interventions such as smoking reduction and seatbelt usage. In fact, the contributions of medicines to life expectancy were nearly three times greater than all other medical interventions combined.
We cannot risk not having access to the next innovation that could help beat back a pandemic or that could help cure or manage a chronic condition. And we need to continue working together to ensure that these innovations actually make it to patients. There are real, long-term risks to patient health if policies hurt a healthy innovation infrastructure.
The many roles I’ve had over the years — pharmacist, insurance executive, federal health official and a son watching the critical role medicines play in my parents’ lives — have taught me the importance of innovation and ensuring access to high-value care. In my new role at the helm of NPC, we are continuing to focus on evidence-based ways to maintain incentives for innovation that promote high-value care. These are incentives not only for the biopharmaceutical sector, but also incentives across our health care system so that we can improve access to the care and treatments that patients need.
Innovation throughout the health ecosystem has helped to turn the tide on the pandemic, and investments today will continue to help patients in the future. Let’s keep innovating, together, for a healthier world.
John O’Brien is president and chief executive officer of the National Pharmaceutical Council.