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Glaxo CEO: Long Road To Win Back Public Trust

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty
GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty

It's hard to recall that a few decades ago drugmakers were among the most admired companies in the world. Starting back in the late '80s, Merck was No. 1 in Fortune's annual rankings for corporate prom king four years running.

But an annual Gallup poll that tracks how Americans view various industries found last year that pharmaceuticals are down in the lower ranks — just behind lawyers and a step up from real estate. Overall, 48 percent of Americans view drugmakers negatively, compared with 32 percent who see the industry in a positive light.

Is there a brand-name company that hasn't been tarnished by questions about how its medicines are represented to doctors and patients or by legal settlements with the government?

Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline has had its share of problems on those fronts.

Recently, Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty acknowledged in a chat with Shots it's clear that trust in the industry has eroded over the past 20 years. "The reality is the industry has to change the way it operates," he said. "It has to make sure it's meeting an ever-increasing standard of scrutiny."

He has some ideas for winning it back. Witty outlined changes the company is making to spur the development of drugs for neglected diseases and a radical revamp of its sales practices in the U.S. He also said Glaxo's approach to new medicines won't be about tweaking existing products to get a little more life from them. Instead, he said, the Glaxo will be looking to show that new medicines are providing good value for consumers and society. You can hear highlights from the conversation in this podcast.

It's pretty clear it's a rehab project that will take years. For an interim progress report, see Glaxo's latest scorecard on corporate responsibility here.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.