As a promi­nent an­a­lyst pre­dicts (even­tu­al) drug price con­trols, bio­phar­ma braces for a blow while Trump balls his fist

Some­time this week, no one is sure when, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ex­pect­ed to give his long-await­ed speech on drug pric­ing. And a long line­up of key play­ers in the field has been scratch­ing their heads, anx­ious­ly try­ing to de­ter­mine just how far the na­tion’s most un­pre­dictable pres­i­dent could go.

Trump, of course, has been free with his pop­ulist brand of an­ti-in­dus­try rhetoric for more than a year now, af­ter es­tab­lish­ing the base­line with re­peat­ed as­ser­tions that phar­ma com­pa­nies have been get­ting away with mur­der for years. 

But there’s been lit­tle di­rect ac­tion, be­yond the work at the FDA to hus­tle up new gener­ic ap­provals while try­ing to use the pub­lic spot­light to whip up some fresh com­pe­ti­tion for the price gougers. 

FDA com­mis­sion Scott Got­tlieb like­ly tipped the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand on one point in a pre­view he of­fered on pric­ing last week, in­di­cat­ing that in­dus­try prac­tices in fight­ing a de­lay­ing ac­tion against gener­ics and biosim­i­lars will face some di­rect chal­lenges. But while sig­nif­i­cant, that by it­self won’t bend any longterm trends on pric­ing in fa­vor of pay­ers.

Mean­while, pub­lic anger over drug pric­ing is re­peat­ed­ly stoked with an un­end­ing se­ries of high pro­file as­saults on cer­tain play­ers that have used their pric­ing pow­er to jack up rev­enue from old drugs.

Just last night, Mallinck­rodt was back in the spot­light with Ac­thar, which has gone from $40 a vial in 2001 to $40,000, threat­en­ing the ba­sic po­lice and fire ser­vices pro­vid­ed by the town of Rock­ford, IL.

For­mer Rock­ford May­or Lar­ry Mor­ris­sey set the stage for a 60 Min­utes seg­ment with this quote: “‘Why is health­care so ex­pen­sive? Be­cause the fix is in. That’s the an­swer. That’s the short an­swer.”

And it’s not the kind of an­swer bio­phar­ma wants to hear right now, es­pe­cial­ly on 60 Min­utes.

The in­dus­try is still dis­grun­tled over the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to get phar­ma to cov­er part of the donut hole in Medicare drug prices. But they can live with that. There’s been a steady fo­cus at PhRMA on try­ing to shift the fo­cus from the man­u­fac­tur­ers to the in­sur­ers and PBMs that man­age the ben­e­fit. But it hasn’t worked. And re­cent­ly that tac­tic has pro­duced some painful­ly awk­ward sal­lies on so­cial me­dia that tends to at­tract as much spon­ta­neous laugh­ter as dis­cus­sion.

With pub­lic anger per­co­lat­ing at an un­prece­dent­ed rate — a ma­jor­i­ty told Kaiser Health that re­duc­ing drug pric­ing should be a top pri­or­i­ty of pol­i­cy mak­ers — some an­a­lysts be­lieve that what­ev­er Trump comes up with it won’t be enough to stop the one strat­e­gy that would make the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try reel: Price con­trols.

Se­nior Wells Far­go an­a­lyst David Maris put it in blunt terms a few days ago.

We be­lieve the US is on a longer-term arc to­ward price con­trols and low­er mar­gins, as there is an up­ris­ing that has been per­co­lat­ing for years against high drug prices. While the caus­es are many and the prob­lem much more com­pli­cat­ed and nu­anced than many oth­ers would lead read­ers to be­lieve, there is a re­bel­lion at hand. Ar­gu­ments about the cost to de­vel­op a drug or how oth­er sup­ply chain con­stituents are to blame are not ap­pre­ci­at­ed by the par­ent stand­ing at a phar­ma­cy counter aban­don­ing their child’s pre­scrip­tion be­cause they can­not af­ford it due to an out­ra­geous de­ducible or high co-pay. And ex­am­ples of un­con­scionable drug price in­creas­es have fur­ther hard­ened many con­sumer opin­ions. 

That day prob­a­bly won’t ar­rive this week. But if that’s the path we’re on, Trump is faced with ei­ther sat­is­fy­ing the anger with some grand com­pro­mis­es, or stok­ing it by pulling his punch­es.


Im­age: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at a speech in Oc­to­ber, 2017. AP IM­AGES

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.

Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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