With its anti-Covid vaccine sold at cost price, Johnson & Johnson revives its image

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New York | The American laboratory Johnson & Johnson (J&J), marred by scandals linked to its talc and the opioid crisis, is rebuilding a reputation with its anti-Covid vaccine, currently sold at cost but potentially juicy in the long term.

Authorized since Thursday by the European Union, it has already been approved in the United States, Canada and South Africa.

If its deployment goes off without a major hitch, it could help J&J regain blunt prestige.

“The pharmaceutical industry, widely admired in the 1990s, has lost a lot of its aura because of drug prices,” said Damien Conover, specialist in the health sector at Morningstar.

Laboratories “can be seen as arrogant when they claim that the only solution to a health problem is a drug,” adds Daniel Binns, head of the marketing consulting firm Interbrand.

“They often give the impression of acting only for money and not for the good of humanity,” he adds.

Johnson & Johnson’s reputation has been further damaged in the United States by lawsuits accusing its talcum powder of cancer and its marketing methods of participating in the opiate crisis that sparked an explosion. overdoses.

Logo change

After having developed in record time effective vaccines against a pandemic that has shaken the whole world, laboratories would be wrong not to seize this opportunity “to reposition themselves in the eyes of the general public” which, for the first time in a long time, ” is receptive to their messages, ”says Binns.

In January, Pfizer radically changed its logo for the first time in more than 70 years.

Johnson & Johnson has even more a card to play than with its shampoos and its creams, it is a mark of the daily newspaper.

“We felt that as the world’s largest seller of health products, we had a responsibility to step up” when the pandemic hit, J&J CFO Joseph Wolk told a conference. early March.

The group very quickly assured that it would sell its vaccines at cost price while recognizing that this would have a “beneficial” impact on the activities.

Patients will fearlessly return to their doctors and stop postponing elective surgeries while consumers go on vacation. Sales of drugs, prostheses and sunscreens will therefore start to rise again.

The group could also decide, once the pandemic is under control, to start taking advantage of the anti-Covid vaccine.

Probably not in 2021, according to Wolk. But if it is necessary to re-vaccinate or to fight against the variants of Covid-19, “we could start to consider new opportunities from 2022”.

The group “must advance cautiously on this subject because it has received public funds to develop the vaccine,” said Mr. Conover, however.

Tight negotiations

It is complicated to assess both the reputational and legal risks of trials related to talc and opiates as well as the possible financial repercussions of the anti-Covid vaccine on J&J, as the group has diverse and geographically scattered activities, remarks Sel Hardy, analyst for CFRA.

But “it is undeniable” that even if it does not make money immediately, the vaccine represents “a commercial success” for the group: it is less expensive than others and practical with its single dose, more effective. than vaccines developed using the same method.

The question now is whether J&J will be able to use its new aura in its discussions on drug prices with governments.

“I would like to think that we will be able to take advantage of a positive halo effect in our next tight negotiations, but I think it is a little too optimistic”, estimated the chief financial officer at the beginning of March.

In Washington, the drop in drug prices is defended by Republicans as well as Democrats, and Joe Biden has made it a campaign promise.

For Mr. Conover, however, “politicians have seen (with the pandemic) the importance of a vigorous pharmaceutical industry, which could limit the scope of any reform” on the subject.