Pharma was published on March 10. The next day, the World Health organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
“You know the old saying: Timing is everything. That is certainly the case with Gerald Posner … The timing of Pharma is extraordinary.” —Dallas Morning News
Posner, a Miami Beach resident for 17 years, had no idea, of course, how quickly that prediction would come true but he knew it was an important theme. “I thought pandemic was going to be a through-line,” he said. After infectious disease doctors “sounded the alarm” of a possible pandemic of some kind, the concept was part of the book’s subtitle – initially as Pills, Profits, and Pandemics – but it was “dropped right near the end.”
“For me, it was always more than the penultimate chapter,” Posner said. “I had no remote idea that coronavirus would come up… [but] for me, it was always an important part of the book.”
Pharma tells the history of the trillion-dollar-a-year pharmaceutical industry, from what Posner calls “some great stories of innovation,” including the discovery of penicillin, to the story of the Sackler family, now known for the opioid crisis. “Inspiration and genius and just crossing the line of what’s proper time and time again and a little bit of greed,” Posner said.
While the coronavirus has cancelled Posner’s book tour, he has been in high demand among the major media outlets asking him to share his perspective on the pandemic. “It’s, sort of, in some ways the bad and the worse,” he said. “There’s not a lot of good.” Posner stays in touch with the infectious disease experts, as best he can given their focus on the crisis. When he gets off the phone with one, he’ll tell people what he’s learned. Sometimes, he’ll say, “That’s not so bad” and sometimes his reaction is, “That’s terrifying.”
“We’re all hoping for the ‘that’s not so bad’” scenario, he said.
He’s watching South Korea, “one of my model places” where they’ve done a lot of testing” and learned lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2015. “They also had a level of privacy intrusion I’m not sure Americans would put up with,” he said. “But when fear takes hold, people will give up a lot” to stop the spread of the disease. For example, he said, if you knew specific information about where an infected person had been, down to the row they sat in while watching a movie in a theater on a specific date, you would get tested. One of the later realizations, Posner said, was “sick people going to certain places trying to get tested, going around looking for the test,” were spreading the illness.
He’s concerned about a new “hot zone” in South Korea. “They thought they had clamped it down… the question is what has led to a new outbreak.”
One thing he does know, early and wide testing, followed by measures to control the virus, is critical. His concern for South Florida is “By the time you do the first test, it has been in the community for three or four weeks.”
Control measures go far more than proclamations that “Spring Break is over,” he said. It’s not just the students, but “just the degree to which a lot of visitors were getting together.”
Public officials were “well-intentioned, but their feeling was ‘What can we do?’” he said. “They cancelled Spring Break technically in the middle, but you’re still left with all the visitors.”
The beach closings from 5th to 15th Streets, he said, just forced people north of 15th. Restaurants and bars may have closed, “but they [were] still here because their return tickets aren’t for 3-4 days and what do they do? They’re bored.”
Friends in Italy have told him, “If you aren’t harsh with hard measures in the very early days you will regret it, very likely because the community spread will be more significant and the only way we will know if we got lucky in Miami Beach is when the infection numbers come out.”
The Miami Herald reported via Twitter, as of last night, there are 22 positive cases of COVID-19 in Miami Beach, 125 in Miami.
Just a week ago, Posner said he was “amazed” by the crowds participating in what he termed “reckless gathering” despite the increased warnings and restrictions. “One of the difficulties is, for the most part, we’re dealing with kids, early 20s and teens, who feel invincible. They were told until the other day, they weren’t at risk.”
“I’m not sure I know what the answer is, but I know what the problem is: having large crowds gathering here, those crowds coming back from the beach into town, going to restaurants and bars or other places and the people working in those locations having interactions with them going home,” Posner said. “I will be flabbergasted if we don’t find that the majority of cases are not from travel but from community spread.”
Posner is the author of twelve books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Case Closed and multiple national bestsellers. His 2015 book, God’s Bankers, a two-hundred-year history about the finances of the Vatican was an acclaimed New York Times bestseller.
Regarding his latest book, he said, “I was interested in the topic because, in all seriousness, I greatly underestimated how difficult it was.” Two to three years into the project, he realized why no one had done it before. It took him nearly a year of research before he felt confident doing interviews with researchers, scientists, and pharmaceutical industry representatives. The number of interviews led to the “full richness” of the story (and 816 pages!), he said, because of the many different perspectives. “No matter how much time you have, you never have enough time,” he added. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true. You always want another month.”
Posner’s immersion in the topic has led to an activism to get the drug companies to make sacrifices along with everyone else in the development of a vaccine. “We all have to make sacrifices. Everybody’s suffering… waiters and waitresses, the travel industry, cruise lines, airlines, and mothers and fathers that have to stay at home and they have no daycare… all across the world,” he said. “Pharmaceutical companies are going to have to take a bit of a sacrifice as well.”
Posner said the first company to develop a vaccine should share the research “as opposed to locking up the intellectual properties. Make it open so others can work on it.”
He added, “I’m not against them making a profit, but it should be a minimal profit. If it costs $10 dollars, charge 11, not 20.” Governments are going to have to buy it after investing billions of dollars in public research money, he said. Then the companies “turn around and make a profit on it. I’m on fire on this.”
Some shows have cancelled his appearances saying, “This isn’t the time to be talking bad about the drug companies, we need them.” Posner’s response: “They’re great innovators. They’re going to develop this vaccine.” But, he says, “If we take our eye off the ball, they will be in the position of full leverage and they will make a fortune on this. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for the winning firm that develops the vaccine,” and that, he says, “is the history of the drug business.”
His message to the pharmaceutical industry: “You guys are good sometimes. You have good innovations. You have the science to do this in record time. You can make a profit, but don’t make it at a price that it’s hard for people to get. You’ve got to give up a little bit.”
Buy PharmaPublished by Simon & Schuster’s Avid Reader Press
One of Apple Books’ Best Books of March
A Top Ten Pick for March by the Christian Science Monitor
On Amazon, Five stars, #1 in Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industry books, #7 in Company Business Profiles
Two options: We encourage you to shop local by buying it online through Books and Books.
If you choose to purchase through Amazon via this link, a small portion of the purchase price will go to RE:MiamiBeach to help support local news.
Virtual Book Signings for Pharma: Greed Lies and the Poisoning of AmericaThe coronavirus pandemic meant the cancellation of Posner’s book tour but you can participate virtually.
Politics and Prose
Wednesday, March 25, 6:00 pm
Miami Beach JCC
Thursday, March 26, 7:30 pm
RSVP to mbjcc.ticketleap.com/pharma to receive a link for the virtual event
Books and Books
Friday, March 27, 8:00 pm
Watch this space for details
Marcus Jewish Community Center, Atlanta
(with author Trisha Posner, Gerald’s wife who, he notes, “was involved in every aspect of PHARMA. [S]he will add a unique and lively perspective.”
Sun, March 29, 7:30 – 8:00
Photos courtesy Gerald Posner