Glaxo Smith Kline faces a serious scandal for its business practices in China. There are serious implications for the entire global pharmaceutical industry
Some years ago, I wrote of the dilemmas facing Glaxo as its then chief sought to address criticisms of the gap between corporate actions and its rhetoric of corporate social responsibility. The entire pharmaceutical industry has been a favourite target on the internet under the cover-all term Big Pharma, as long-term profits were threatened, and speed-to-market pressures increased. Various unpleasant and often illegal practices were revealed.
The $400 million scam
Glaxo Smith Kline [GSK] is currently [July 2013] the centre of another scandal through its operations in China. The company is accused of a $400 million scam involving bribing doctors. Eighteen Glaxo employees have been arrested in China. The Chinese authorities claim a network of 700 people has been involved.
The issues are those facing the global giants known collectively as Big Pharma. The current story has a depressingly familiar tone. Last year  Glaxo Smith Kline was hit with a $3bn fine for mis-selling drugs in the US. To date, the city has taken a relaxed view on the affair. Analyst Nils Pratley disagrees, offering three reasons:
First, reputation matters to drug companies and to Glaxo chief Andrew Witty who has been on a clean-up campaign during his five years in charge. After [last year’s fine] Witty said he was dealing with “echoes of the past” and announced his determination that such events would never happen again.
Nobody should doubt his sincerity but the Chinese allegations, if they are proved, would represent a serious failure of management. As far one can tell, GSK put in audit controls that it thought were sufficient for China; it may have been bamboozled by a sophisticated internal scam that was hard to spot without access to private bank accounts and emails. But that would be an explanation of failure, and won’t help GSK on the image front. Witty the unwitting is poor branding when you are dealing with governments around the world.
Second, GSK will probably have to rethink its entire model of doing business in China and other “high risk” countries. That signals disruption ahead as internal compliance controls are overhauled yet again.
[Eventually] in China, GSK will have to arrive at a working arrangement with a central government that appears to have a twofold agenda of running an anti-corruption drive and getting more funding into its dysfunctional healthcare system. Greater opportunity for GSK could emerge from the mess [through lower costs but greater volumes of sale and a better-regulated market.} But, to judge by the current aggressive rhetoric in China, the road to that position could be very long indeed. The story is still developing, but the City looks to be underplaying it.
I have long argued that the ‘pipeline’ model of innovation long-accepted by Big Pharma is in need of rethinking. It is based on a belief that success requires a pipeline of massive proportions through which vast numbers of candidates proceed in a Darwinian series of tests. Commercial pressures have ramped up the size and speed of operations. The temptation to ignore corporate social responsibilities is strong, regardless of the rhetoric and the establishment of CSR departments. Sir Andrew faces a host of leadership dilemmas.