Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel Exclusive Interview - Pharmaceutical Executive

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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?


Pharmaceutical Executive


Pharm Exec: To what other ways would you attribute your influence in the field of science and medicine?

Wiesel: Nobel laureates assume a moral obligation which allows us to try and persuade through dialogue, to sensitize people to ignorance, hate, and prejudice. When language fails, violence escalates.

Pharm Exec: How do you—as an author, philosopher, and acute observer of the human condition—make the case for the role of the biopharmaceutical industry in society?

Wiesel: The biopharmaceutical industry is a force for life, when so much of our world is consumed by illness and death and the activities and conditions that contribute to it. To see the array of novel and useful new medicines up for awards at the annual Prix Galien dinner on Sept. 28 should be a revelation—33 in all, each providing a new standard of care for conditions ranging from mass killers like diabetes and malaria to complex, select, and hard-to-treat diseases that attract less attention, such as autoimmune disorders. Tackling both is a moral imperative, if you approach disease from the basic biblical perspective that should guide all research: "Thou shalt not stand idly by."

It is less well known how much the industry invests in studying medicines that may never be approved for patients. When this is discussed, the emphasis is always on the money. But what appeals to me is the way the industry provides dedicated scientists with a place to do ethical, honorable work. One CEO told me his company employs some 80 scientists to study the physiological origins of Alzheimer's disease. It is very basic research—a task entirely separate from the related commercial task of advancing a new drug to registration. There is an enormous secondary social benefit in making such a commitment, but I am not sure it is communicated. Clearly, industry provides a productive outlet for the efforts of some very motivated scientists. Without this outlet, medical progress would suffer.

Pharm Exec: Looking forward, are there trends and developments that suggest an erosion in the capacity of innovation to sustain itself and maintain a high level of public support and investment?

Wiesel: The basis for social progress in any field is inherently fragile. There is always a competing rationale—an excuse —for greed, intolerance, and blight. My own life experience is testament to that. Maintaining support for medical innovation requires fundamentally that it be considered as much more than a business process. If it were nothing more, I would not be engaged in the discussion nor would most other laureates. Hence it has to be linked to something much larger, and that is a moral imperative central to our human inheritance—rooted in our past, shaping our present, and driving the destiny of the next generation so that it will be in a better place tomorrow. Innovation always has to be presented in the context of a positive vision of the future.

Pharm Exec: Is this not too much to expect from primarily private enterprises, whose mission is to make a profit? It appears grandiose.

Wiesel: I don't think the emphasis on a larger moral mission is at odds with the operation of the market. President Clinton said it well in his remarks as a humanitarian award winner at last month's Prix Galien: "At no time have we asked you in private industry not to make money; just to make it in different ways." I hear many CEOs talk about the need for a new business model, so is his request not itself a way of encouraging more innovation?

Pharm Exec: Are there other threats to the integrity of the scientific enterprise?

Wiesel: Intolerance and declining support for education. The degradation of language, as evidenced by the failure of people to communicate through active listening; and the individualization of information against the interests of community. Fanaticism of all kinds.


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