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In Big Pharma we trust

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The status of Big Pharma has never been higher since it fast-tracked Covid-19 vaccines in record time. But it may not be quite so deserving of government and public trust, as its history of fines and settlements suggests.

It was a bit of a swings-and-roundabouts year for Big Pharma in 2022. After posting record profits for its Covid-19 jabs, it also paid out the largest settlement figure in its history, which really is saying something.

Four companies—Cardinal Health, McKesson, and Amerisource Bergen and Johnson & Johnson—paid a combined settlement of $26 billion to victims of the opioids scandal, which saw whole towns becoming addicted to the painkillers; $23.9 billion of the payout is being spent on combating the ongoing crisis.

It dwarfs other pharmaceutical settlements. Before this one, the highest settlement had been GlaxoSmithKline’s payout of $3 billion for its anti-diabetes drug Avandia, which was effectively taken off the market in 2010 after it was found to cause heart problems.

But the biggest culprit is Pfizer—yes, the company that brought you the mRNA Covid vaccine—which has been fined 90 times since the turn of the century, paying out a total of $10.27 billion. It has been fined 20 times for making false claims about its products, and another 26 times for despoiling the environment.

Close behind is GlaxoSmithKline, which has paid out nearly $10 billion. It has on several occasions been called out by whistleblowers, who revealed to regulators that it was hiding safety data about Avandia and encouraging physicians to prescribe its Paxil and Wellbutrin antidepressants for off-label use.

Not to be outdone, Merck & Co. was sued by 50,000 victims—or their surviving families—of its painkiller Vioxx, which caused strokes and heart attacks, details the company kept tucked away in a filing cabinet. It paid out $650 million before withdrawing the drug in 2004.

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Nature, 2017; 546 (7660): E8; doi: 10.1038/nature22786

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