Therapeutic Dose: The Relief Tsunami

Job security concerns failed to prevent pharmaceutical professionals and their employers from donating generously to regions devastated by December's tsunami.

By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

The humanitarian aid following December’s tsunami in south and southeast Asia has been unprecedented, and inspirational. If you donated to the relief efforts, on your own or through a company matching program, raise your hand. (Now put it down, before people start whispering behind your back.)
Big Pharma has stepped up, with cash and supplies. Here are some initial, unofficial commitments:

  • Pfizer pledged $10 million in cash, to be distributed amongst the Red Cross, CARE, and four other organizations. It has also committed $25 million in medicines and health care products.

  • Merck is contributing $3 million to aid agencies, and has its own Disaster Relief Matching Funds Program doubling employee contributions. Its Merck Sharp & Dohme offices in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are working closely with local relief organizations.

  • Novartis is providing over $2 million, plus antimalarials and antibiotics.

  • Abbott has chipped in $2 million, plus $3.5 million worth of Biaxin, Omnicef, Pedialyte and other products.

  • Bristol-Myers Squibb has given $1 million and antibiotics to the Red Cross, and is matching employee contributions.

  • Wyeth has announced a pledge of $1 million, and is working with affiliates and employees in affected areas on further assistance.

  • Eli Lilly has pledged up to $3 million, plus antibiotics and insulin if needed, and will match up to $1 million of employee contributions.
Let’s leave cynicism about ulterior motives aside here. This is good stuff. Real help. Difference-making corporate philanthropy.

Drug companies have mechanisms in place whenever disaster happens. Eli Lilly & Co. (Indianapolis) spokesperson Edward Sagebiel says that the company immediately turns to trusted aid organizations like UNICEF and Project Hope for guidance. “They do the assessment and determine their ability to get products to those who need them, then we inventory and determine what’s available,” he says.

Responding to the tsunami was challenging for two reasons, Sagebiel says. It took place over the holidays, when Lilly offices (though not its plants) were closed. A unified company response was cobbled together through a flurry of odd-hour emailing and teleconferencing from across the globe.

The scope of the tsunami was unlike any other disaster, Sagebiel says. Floods in the Czech Republic, the Kobe earthquake, the bombings in Madrid, and of course 9-11—all disasters to which Lilly lent a helping hand—were at least localized in their need for relief. The tsunami was multinational. “Some governments said they wanted assistance, some didn’t, there was a lot of confusion,” Sagebiel says. It took time for relief agencies to do needs assessments and communicate their strategies to firms like Lilly.

It’s a cruel irony of the globalized world that some of the most generous firms in terms of disaster relief are also those (BMS, Merck, Lilly to name a few) in the midst of trimming their U.S. workforces amid severe cost-cutting measures. It’s a cruel irony that some of the employees writing checks for tsunami aid with their right hands may soon be receiving pink slips with their left.

These are strange days at Lilly. It is vigorously defending itself against allegations by the British Medical Journal that, a decade ago, it was not forthright in providing information possible links between Prozac and patient violence and suicide attempts. There have been hiring freezes and rumors of continued layoffs. A little eavesdropping on the Lilly message boards at cafepharma.com suggests a palpable anxiety deep in the heart of Indiana. Café Pharma, if you haven’t heard, is the hot industry rumor mill (ostensibly for sales pros, but everybody’s looking in) and while none of the cyber-chatter is to be trusted, neither should it be dismissed outright.

Here’s what one alleged Lilly insider is saying:

Got word today from a very, very reliable individual, high in the company, that there will be a major restructuring at all levels and in all departments... serious blood-letting will take place... to be completed by the end of Q2 2005. My resume is going out immediately.

The six sigma managers are starting their work on efficiencies across all departments in January. Internal hiring freeze is up on February 7th. If changes do go down these will be official layoffs, people have to go and unfortunately not enough spots for all. . . . HOLD ON, HERE WE GO AGAIN, IF ANYONE HAS ANYTHING THEY KNOW GIVE IT UP!
Job security in the industry is tenuous, especially in manufacturing. And yet chances are there are legions of pharmaceutical professionals who opened their wallets and pocketbooks for tsunami victims without knowing if their own jobs were intact. If you know somebody like this, give them a pat on the back. They deserve it.

The tsunami has been a sobering dose of reality for us all. One thing we’ve learned is that when drug companies and their workers are committed to the same goals, they have a therapeutic potential greater than that of the drugs they manufacture.

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