In Which We Quibble — With The Headline Writers, At Forbes: Merck’s R&D Revamp Details, Part III

Over the weekend, San Francisco based business outlets rejoiced — over the return of a substantial Merck science presence to the Bay Area (it had shuttered one two years ago inside San Francisco, but kept some smaller operations open, in Palo Alto, near Stanford).

Also over the weekend, much of what was written by David Shaywitz in Forbes rang true (do go read it all) — on the revamp of Merck’s research focus. Especially the suggestion that Merck Research Labs, and pharma more broadly, ought to evince more genuine humility (my central theme of Saturday) — in the face of entire areas of bio-science we still only dimly understand.

It is true that — again, as I have repeatedly suggested — in many cases, much of the mechanism by which a given drug works — i.e., the basic biological function taking place — may be only guessed at. So, designing drugs will — for decades to come — still be as much an art as a science. That much our Forbes writer gets, cold. Kudos.

But I must go on now, to quibble a bit with the headline editors, on that story. I do understand that their idea is to offer a particularly provocative hook, and thus sell more ad impressions, but the story was captioned (in relevant part) “Why. . . may not save. . . pharma” or some such. Seriously? Save? Um. . . save?!

The notion that Merck or Pfizer or Novartis or GSK might die is. . . nonsense. Each one will live on, well into the next half-century — as each one generates a dizzying amount of cash. These companies are not electronic game makers (whose titles go in and out of fashion, and so too their fortunes) no, the cash-flow from their legacy drugs alone will ensure their survival for two decades more, even if not one of them ever sees another drug approved. So, the notion of saving pharma is. . . a classic false dichotomy. Pharma will live on for decades — the question is whether the same four or so names will thrive, and lead — or watch, and follow.

I’ve quoted immediately below the equally puzzling conclusion to the Forbes piece.

. . . .Ultimately, it’s not clear whether the shift from Research & Development to [Search & Development] will save the industry, or represent just the latest temporizing, shape-shifting maneuver for an industry desperately trying to figure out how to survive in a rapidly changing world. . . .

All in all, Mr. Shaywitz writes a pretty fine piece. His conclusion — and his headline editors, on the other hand, should be reeled in, a bit. Big pharma is not in any danger of winking out of existence — and especially so, the $48 billion a year global juggernaut that is Merck. It may one day no longer lead, and it may for a decade or more, only follow the herd. . . . but it will be here, when my children. . . have children, of their own. Bank on it.

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