People, Pharma

After jumping ship at Eli Lilly, Politico reports Alex Azar may soon land top HHS job

Back at the beginning of this year, Eli Lilly’s US chief Alex Azar left his post during the big executive shuffle as Dave Ricks replaced John Lechleiter at the helm. But he may be about to line up a much better job than the one he exited.

Politico reports that Azar is a favorite in the race to replace Tom Price, the experienced political hand who had a weakness for private jets. Depending on who the reporters were talking to in the administration, Azar had either been shortlisted or was already informally tapped for the job.

The move would bring Azar back to Washington, where he did a stint as general counsel and deputy secretary at HHS under George W Bush. Azar — a Yale Law School grad — was on one of my panels about 15 months ago and ably represented Lilly with a sharp and concise representation of the kind of opportunities and pitfalls a Big Pharma like Lilly has to navigate every day.

Azar did not immediately jump to another position in the industry, upping the odds that he was pushed out rather than jumped as Ricks began to restructure the company from top to bottom. Azar set up a consultancy called Seraphim Strategies in February as he “explored leadership opportunities.”

Whatever Azar’s thoughts on Lilly, he’d be viewed as a dependable and talented advocate for the industry, someone who isn’t likely to discomfort the Big Pharma players.

Depending on when he’s talking, President Donald Trump has been a caustic critic of the biopharma industry’s drug pricing policies. Just yesterday he doubled down on his earlier criticisms, noting that US drug prices are a multiple of what they cost in other countries with a single-payer system — something he would never abide.

“Sometimes it’s a fraction of what we pay in this country,” Trump said in prepared remarks. “The drug companies frankly are getting away with murder and we want to bring our prices down to what other countries pay.”

We’ve been subsidizing other countries, he added, “paying double, triple, quadruple.”

But unlike his first slapdowns, this time Trump’s attack barely caused a ripple in the industry, where top execs led by Merck’s Ken Frazier exited the president’s industry advisory groups in the wake of the controversy over the Charlottesvillle, VA confrontation by extremist organizations.

One other hotly rumored candidate for this job has been FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who’s made an impressive entry into a job that calls on the federal agency to balance the gold standard on efficacy and safety drug development with the mandate to speed new approvals. Gottlieb recently said he’d prefer to stay at the FDA, where his talents lay, without actually ruling out a quick promotion.

It appears he may get his wish.

Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meets reporters at department headquarters on June 8, 2006 to announce the approval of Gardasil, the first vaccine developed to protect women against cervical cancer. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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