Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel Exclusive Interview

Ethical behavior can be a bridge-builder in an era where Big Pharma needs to find new partners. Is it up to the challenge?
Sep 30, 2010



The global health space continues to expand, and with it comes the gravitational pull from a new set of actors determined to play a role in shaping the destiny of one of its oldest but sputtering stars—the biopharmaceutical industry. In the following conversation, Pharm Exec launches a series of exchanges with these "non-traditional" stakeholders beginning with Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel peace laureate and lead sponsor of the Prix Galien awards for innovation in medicine. His focus is on reinforcing ethical behavior in the industry, the importance of CEO leadership, and the moral obligation to change the way we think about the elderly, highlighted by the imperative to find new cures and treatments against the afflictions of age, as a way to avert generational conflict.
— William Looney, Editor-in-Chief

Pharm Exec: As a noted author of more than 50 books, you have said that when words produce a dialogue among the disconnected, great deeds are possible. Your life is filled with examples of how a simple conversation can serve as a catalyst for action. How are you building on this premise to support cooperation in science, research, and the medical enterprise?

Wiesel: The Wiesel Foundation for Humanity Marion and I established in 1987 serves as a forum for an ongoing series of exchanges with Nobel laureates in medicine, the healing sciences, and other disciplines. Shortly after our launch, the French President accepted our idea to convene a select group of these leaders in Paris at the Elysée Palace—eventually we attracted 79 laureates—to serve as a bridge between cultures and integrate perspectives on science and the humanities, with the aim of fostering international peace and conciliation. This conference took place in 1988 and at that time it was a very novel concept.

Subsequently we organized a series of "Anatomy of Hate" conferences in New York, Oslo, Moscow, and Hiroshima. Most recently we held four annual conferences of laureates and senior government and international organization officials, hosted by the King of Jordan and held in the ancient city of Petra [in 2008]. We also created a Middle-East Science Fund with the King Abdullah II Foundation to sponsor joint scientific research in a range of disciplines—including medicine—and to promote exchanges among scientists and academic institutions in the region.

Pharm Exec: You believe the scientific enterprise creates a larger social dynamic by forcing countries to focus more on common global interests. Must it also have a moral purpose?

Wiesel: Because scientists converse in a universal language based on the search for verifiable truths, their work can transcend national boundaries and reduce distrust. Science is an engine of innovation and material well-being, a goal for all civilized and democratic societies. Although my laureate award is for peace, I owe a debt to scientists like the late fellow Nobelist Joshua Lederberg, who showed me how medicine can in fact be an enormous moral force for change. Everything we do in medical research today should have an "end point" linked to progress—not just against the clinical manifestations of death and disability, but against the dark barriers of the closed mind as well: fear, fanaticism, superstition, and ignorance.

Pharm Exec: You are also a lead convener of the Prix Galien, a global movement to promote innovation in pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and medical devices.

Wiesel: This annual awards program is managed directly by six Nobel laureates in the biosciences. What is distinctive about Prix Galien is the way the program demonstrates the diversity of the sources of pharmaceutical innovation—Prix Galien has active award programs in 12 countries and is now expanding to Asia and some emerging country markets.

The potential of this organization is significant. Not only does Prix Galien serve as a vehicle for publicly recognizing the initiative of private enterprise in developing new cures and treatments, it also has a policy mission that is attractive to other stakeholders outside industry, especially the international community. One policy issue that certainly dominates the agenda today, where the effects of globalization and economic crisis are so apparent, is who shall pay for the next generation of treatments. More important, what are the terms of access to them, especially for the neglected populations of the world? The "convening expertise" offered through the Prix Galien, organized by Bruno Cohen, can help us answer that question.