For years, the focus of one of the most pressing public health debates in America was the drug overdose epidemic. This epidemic killed almost 200 people each day last year alone.
In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. The novel coronavirus is currently killing about 1,000 people per day in the US.
This devastating pandemic has pushed opioids out of the headlines for now. However, America’s addiction crisis is far from over. In fact, COVID-19 has made the addiction epidemic worse. Increased stress and trauma translate to more substance misuse and more relapse incidents for people with addiction. At the same time, stay-at-home orders and social distancing pose difficult challenges for many treatment programs.
Major pharmaceutical companies are expected to play an important role in the fight to contain COVID-19, with high hopes that a vaccine will soon be widely available. But the pharmaceutical industry still faces a wave of civil lawsuits stemming from its role in the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic.
Thousands of legal cases that were suspended because of COVID are now “moving forward again as local, state, and federal courts reopen around the United States,” reported NPR’s Brian Mann in August. The veteran public radio journalist became NPR’s first full-time addiction correspondent in March 2020.
“Some of the nation’s biggest companies — including CVS, Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, and Walgreens — remain mired in legal and financial uncertainty tied to their decades-long manufacture and sale of prescription opioids,” reported Mann. “Fallout from the opioid crisis has already forced two companies, Purdue Pharma and Insys Therapeutics, into bankruptcy.”
In July, the Justice Department filed civil and criminal claims worth more than $13 billion against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma “after uncovering evidence of criminal and civil misconduct stemming from the company’s alleged role in fueling the nation’s opioid crisis,” according to Reuters.
“I think it’s quite serious,” Rebecca Haffajee, who studies opioid litigation for the Rand Corp., told NPR. “There have been delays associated with COVID, but I actually don’t think there’s an end in sight for a lot of these defendants.”
Nevertheless, Haffajee said, “the goal is not necessarily to put these pharmacies, these manufacturers and these distributors out of business altogether. That would actually be bad for public health and for the healthcare industry.”
Last year, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter condemned Johnson & Johnson as a “drug kingpin” for its role in the distribution of medical opioids. Hunter called the opioid crisis “the worst manmade public health crisis in the history of our state and country.” A state judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson pay $465 million in damages.
The New Jersey-based multinational corporation has denied any wrongdoing in these cases, and “now the company appears eager to pivot, recasting itself as a major player in the race for a coronavirus vaccine,” reported Mann. In August, “Johnson & Johnson announced a $1 billion deal with the federal government aimed at producing millions of doses of a vaccine now in development.”
“We’re facing arguably one of the most serious health challenges the world has ever faced, but we’re doing our absolute very best to make sure we can navigate our way through,” CEO Alex Gorsky said in a webcast to investors this summer.