The Challenge of Understanding Biotech: Sifting Through the Fog and Jargon
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Best selling in the U.S., or in the world? The most prescriptions written? Used by the greatest number of patients? Highest dollar sales? Total number of pills consumed? Do biologics count as a “drug,” or are those scored separately as a “best selling biologic”? Sadly, phrases such as these are seldom defined in a way that you can tell what the author truly meant to say.
I often come across numbers that are so unbelievable that they throw a spanner wrench into my mental gears. These figures may crop up in discussions of topics I am unfamiliar with, but just as often they show up in a commentary that covers my particular areas of expertise. My first response is to look for a footnote, something to tell me where this number came from. The footnote, if you can find one, is often rather vague, attributing the statistic to something like the Government Accountability Office, the Brookings Institution, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Public Citizen, or the National Academy of Sciences. I must confess that I (regretfully) quote these numbers from time to time, since they are often the only ones you can find available on a particular topic.
Having identified the source of these numbers, I often attempt at least a shallow dive into the quoted material to find out how the number was obtained. These efforts are nearly always unsuccessful in that the exact meaning of the number, or the methodology used to derive it, are simply unavailable. One example: a number was cited in a Chicago Tribune article about the number of biotech companies that had declared bankruptcy that did not jibe with other numbers I had seen published. Numerous phone calls and emails later, I was told that the number provided by an industry organization had been misquoted by the reporter who authored the piece and was, therefore, untrue. I never saw a correction published. To put it bluntly, if I can’t understand or confirm a phrase or number, I have a difficult time believing it is true.
Also irritating is reading some number or graph that’s been extracted from a white paper, deciding you would like more info, and then finding out that your only available option is to purchase the entire article for a mere $7,695 from Expensive Reports R Us. Equally vexing: reports produced by financial firms for the exclusive use of their clients, which are therefore not available to the general public. Earlier this year Morgan Stanley published a recommendation that Big Pharma companies largely abandon their internal research programs and acquire their new drugs primarily via acquisitions. Sounds fascinating (and to my mind, unsustainable), and I would love to see their analysis, but … Next Page »