NEW YORK - Pfizer Inc., in a bold effort to shore up falling profits, has applied for patents on the most common side effects of prescription medications: headache, nausea, vomiting, irritability, runny nose, diarrhea, back pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, dry mouth, and flatulence. Pfizer made the unprecedented move after new prescriptions for its embattled pain reliever Celebrex dropped 56 percent during the last week in December, following the release of a government study indicating that people who took Celebrex were more than twice as likely to die from heart attacks and strokes than people who didn't.
According to Pfizer Chief Executive Hank McKinnell, "The recent negative publicity regarding Celebrex has obscured the fact that Pfizer has long been the industry leader in manufacturing pharmaceuticals that cause adverse reactions other than death. It's time we reaped the benefits of the outstanding success we've had in producing drugs with common, trusted side effects that people can rely on."
Pfizer's bold move sent ripples of nausea through some of its competitors. "If Pfizer is successful," claimed one rival CEO, "the rest of us will be at a tremendous disadvantage in creating new drugs because all the familiar side effects will be off limits. It will take years of research and millions of dollars to develop and test new ones."
Some industry observers hailed Pfizer's move as a "visionary" stroke after the company's stock rose two-and-a-half points on the news of its patent applications. Others, however, sounded a cautionary note.
"Cornering the market on headaches, diarrhea and so forth will force rival companies to become more creative, and it's about time," said a Merrill Lynch pharmaceuticals analyst. "Too many research-and-development types rely on the usual, boring side effects whenever they develop a new drug. People are really tired of vomiting and experiencing back pain every time they take prescription medications. They're crying out for something new."
A Gallup poll conducted immediately after Pfizer's announcement appears to support this contention. A cross-section of Americans was asked to choose between novel side effects (inappropriate blushing, an exaggerated rhythmic gait, a quaint lisp) and traditional side effects such as vomiting, dizziness, and flatulence. Eighty percent of those questioned chose blushing over vomiting; 85 percent preferred an exaggerated rhythmic gait to dizziness; and 89 percent chose a quaint lisp over flatulence.
The Gallup poll has a 5 percent margin of error, and Gallup notes that results may have been even more favorable for novel side effects were it not for an unusually high percentage of binge drinkers, anorexics, homophobes, and fraternity members in the company's sample.