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Drug Companies Face Lawsuits From Opioid Crisis As They Respond To The Pandemic

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This week, Johnson & Johnson announced a $1 billion deal with the federal government to develop a new coronavirus vaccine. It's one of many drug companies on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, but many of these same firms are facing an avalanche of lawsuits for their role in the opioid epidemic. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this and joins us now.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: So, Brian, this seems like kind of a complicated moment for the drug industry - I mean, two very different stories playing out. But first, tell us where things stand with the opioid lawsuits.

MANN: Yeah, so COVID-19 basically shut down the court system nationally for months. But now that logjam is breaking loose, and thousands of these civil and criminal cases are grinding forward again. A big federal trial against pharmacy chains involved in the opioid epidemic just got the green light in Ohio, and next month a lawsuit against two drugmakers - Endo and Mallinckrodt goes to a jury trial in Tennessee. I spoke with Gerard Stanch, one of the lead attorneys representing local governments in that case. They're demanding billions of dollars in compensation from these companies.

GERARD STANCH: Justice delayed is justice denied. And they know that when they sit in front of a jury of the community members and have to explain their conduct, there is no explanation. And they're going to have to answer for what they've done.

MANN: Remember - the federal government says a quarter million Americans have died after taking these opioid medications, and the drug industry is still scrambling to cope with the legal and financial fallout from that.

VANEK SMITH: Is there a risk that opioid lawsuits could destabilize or maybe even bankrupt drug companies? I mean, this at a time when they are really needed to respond to the pandemic.

MANN: Yeah, people are talking a lot about this. Some drug companies have already filed for bankruptcy because of opioids. Another firm, Mallinckrodt, said this week they may file for Chapter 11. So there is concern that holding these companies accountable for the addiction epidemic could disrupt their ability to make these important medical products. Rebecca Haffajee studies opioid litigation for the RAND Corporation and the University of Michigan.

REBECCA HAFFAJEE: All of these companies have other products, as well as opioids, that are used for medically necessary purposes. So the goal is not necessarily to put these pharmacies, these manufacturers, these distributors out of business altogether. And that would actually be bad for public health and for the health care industry.

MANN: So one thing I'm hearing, Stacey, is that as these court cases all move forward, there's new pressure to reach some kind of national opioid settlement that would end all this uncertainty for the drug industry.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, obviously, the opioid lawsuits have been a huge black eye for the drug industry. Do you think the pandemic will give them a chance to repair some of the damage to their reputations?

MANN: I think that is part of the story right now. Johnson & Johnson is a good example. Last year, Oklahoma won a half-billion-dollar decision against the company. The state's attorney general described Johnson & Johnson as a drug kingpin organization...

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

MANN: ...For its role making and selling opioids. It's terrible PR. Now the company is casting itself really differently, as a public health champion. Of course, a lot of state and local governments say, not so fast. They want billions of dollars from these companies before they put the opioid crisis behind them.

VANEK SMITH: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent.

Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.