For all its commercial and scientific success, Humira offers a sharply focused lens on what’s wrong with the legacy drug industry at large. AbbVie’s convoluted web of patents and other strategies will keep would-be competitors off the U.S. market until 2023. That means fewer choices—and higher costs—for consumers who might otherwise pursue cheaper options.
This is a consequence of the “blockbuster” drug model, wherein a company relies on one or two key products that ring in billions annually. Hundreds of millions go to marketing and legal-fortress building, while innovation and scientific discovery—ostensibly the beating heart of the biopharmaceutical industry—is often imported from the outside: in-licensed, for instance, from leaner biotechs that actually do place an emphasis on innovation.
So, you might wonder, what’s not to like about a medicine that helps millions of people suffering from serious and painful conditions and that has made its owners billions of dollars in the process? Isn’t that what the pharmaceutical industry is supposed to do?
The answer, like so many aspects of the drug industry, lies in the litany of side effects that are spelled out in the fine print. For the Humira tale has a dark side too—one that’s reflected in many billions of dollars in unnecessary drug costs for consumers and in stymied competition in a critical area of modern drug development. As much as it might look like the quintessential example of scientific innovation and marketing success, the story of how Humira became the world’s bestselling drug is a case study of an industry in slow-motion failure—of a corporate model that is increasingly forsaking investing in research and discovery in favor of purchasing it (at a premium) from the outside. That model is driving up costs for everybody—patients, government payers, insurers, and, yes, even drug company shareholders.