As CEO of Novartis, the world’s second-largest drug company, Vas Narasimhan knows that Big Pharma is an object of love and hate. Pharmaceutical products save lives and help people manage difficult medical conditions. But the industry’s drug prices are often indefensible, and companies’ practices are sometimes questionable or worse. In the pandemic year of 2020, the stakes are even higher, as people look to Narasimhan’s industry to produce preventions or cures for the SARS-CoV-2 virus devastating the world’s health and economy.
The perils and promise are embodied in recent Novartis developments. As a manufacturer of hydroxychloroquine, the company was in the uncomfortable position of distributing a product that was overhyped for an unintended—and, as the FDA concluded, not likely to be effective—use as a Covid-19 treatment or preventative drug. And recently Novartis, which exited the vaccine business in 2014, dipped a toe back in by agreeing to manufacture vaccines