Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel Exclusive Interview - Pharmaceutical Executive


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: What do you see as the key obligation of the CEO in maintaining a high level of public support for the industry and its innovation mission?

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
Wiesel: Industry leaders must re-engage around a business profile that puts more emphasis on ethical performance. It should be the highest priority for the CEO because a culture of best practice begins at the top. Reputations of individual companies have suffered as a consequence of abuse of basic rules of engagement. It is also short-sighted to treat corruption and other ethical lapses as a regulatory, legal, or compliance matter. The implications are far larger in terms of public support and the overall "license to operate" that is critical for an industry whose biggest customer is often government.

A suggestion I have made to industry CEOs is that they devote at least one afternoon a month to a "morality in management" discussion to which a range of outside experts would be invited to identify new ways of meeting society's expectations. It should be informal and open and in that way expose the CEO to issues and people outside the traditional comfort zone in which people of power tend to operate. I also emphasize supplementing this with strict internal guidelines designed to make ethical behavior a performance metric for individual managers.

Pharm Exec: What else can the industry do to improve ethical behavior?

Wiesel: One imperative is to help spread the reliance on ethics in the constituencies you work with. I have fought tirelessly for the introduction of a compulsory course on ethics in all medical schools, with case precedents involving the nefarious role that some physicians, scientists, and indeed pharmaceutical companies played during the Holocaust. I lived through that. It can happen again if we don't invoke that memory for future generations.

Pharm Exec: Is the industry's research agenda continuing to meet the needs of society? Is there a metric that ought to guide the prioritization of research beyond a potential commercial return?

Wiesel: Serving a therapeutic market is important but we also want to see how the industry is building more access to medicines for those who need them most: the helpless.

Now, who are these helpless? Broadly speaking, it is children and the elderly. I believe there is a moral issue here, in that society—including the private sector in healthcare—tends to focus more on protecting the young from disease than the old. Yet statistics indicate that for the first time in history the world will have more people over age 65 than under age 15. A broader research agenda built around diseases of the aged should be welcomed, with a focus on new medicines that improve cognition and enhance the quality of life. The toll imposed by dementia alone is a moral affront, afflicting not only the patient but the millions of caregivers who must witness this deterioration on a daily basis. If a medical science oriented toward youth results in longer life spans, what will be the consequences, especially if much of these added years are squandered by more disability and infirmity, with their huge associated welfare costs? Drug companies have an obligation to address this question.

Pharm Exec: Is access to health care and medicines a basic human right?

Wiesel: Absolutely. It underscores my interest in medicine, as the commitment to peace that brought me the Nobel award revolves around the broadest possible construct of human rights. The right to obtain and enjoy good health is a key element in the lexicon of human rights. The industry's business mission should find expression in this commitment as well.

Pharm Exec: The essence of communication today is the 30-second "elevator speech" that seeks to define who you are. Would you care to craft one for this industry?

Wiesel: I am a storyteller at heart. And I know that all good stories carry a message that is simple and basic about the human condition. For the innovative pharmaceutical industry it is this: Because the world regards the alleviation of illness, pain, and suffering as an honorable enterprise, it is the duty of that enterprise to act honorably.


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