How do you re­place a rock star like Scott Got­tlieb at the FDA? Maybe you can't

Any­one look­ing for a con­ve­nient weath­er vane to de­ter­mine the re­ac­tion to Scott Got­tlieb’s abrupt de­par­ture from the FDA need go no fur­ther than the $XBI. The S&P Biotech ETF took a 4% hit. And it was down an­oth­er 1.8% ahead of the bell on Thurs­day.


The mar­ket and the in­dus­try loved Got­tlieb, as we un­der­scored on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions with in­dus­try sur­veys high­light­ing the in­tense en­thu­si­asm for some­one who ad­vo­cat­ed for col­lab­o­rat­ing with the drug in­dus­try. Bio­phar­ma had a part­ner in Got­tlieb, and they all knew it.

Va­p­ing and the opi­oid epi­dem­ic — while big pub­lic pol­i­cy is­sues — meant ab­solute­ly noth­ing to the in­dus­try. An agency com­mit­ted to push­ing ap­provals while em­brac­ing in­no­va­tion at a time some land­mark ther­a­pies are be­ing ap­proved at a more rapid pace: That was pure gold. And it wasn’t just lip ser­vice. In this brave new world J&J could slip around the gold stan­dard on de­pres­sion drug da­ta and score an OK this week for es­ke­t­a­mine, a drug they plan to make a block­buster. A few years ago, that like­ly wouldn’t have hap­pened.

The one thing that could set­tle in­vestors and ex­ecs back down would be a new head of the FDA that could walk the line be­tween main­tain­ing the some­what weak­ened gold stan­dard on piv­otal da­ta and a free-for-all that would clear­ly aban­don a com­mit­ment to ap­prov­ing safe and ef­fec­tive drugs that met the risk/ben­e­fit analy­sis. 

Got­tlieb emerged ear­ly as a fa­vorite for the FDA job. He had ex­pe­ri­ence at the agency, he fit in­to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s orb with vows to speed things up, and an amaz­ing num­ber of in­dus­try in­sid­ers knew him and liked him.

He quick­ly be­came a rock star in bio­phar­ma, tweet­ing his way through every day about pol­i­cy.

So how do you re­place him and main­tain the same lev­el of en­thu­si­asm in bio­phar­ma? The usu­al sus­pects don’t cut it. 

We’re not even sure right now who will be the in­ter­im chief. Stephen Os­troff has tak­en the helm on a strict­ly in­ter­im ba­sis be­fore, but he re­tired last fall. Amy Aber­nethy was named prin­ci­pal deputy com­mis­sion­er just 2 months ago, com­ing to the FDA from a se­nior sci­en­tif­ic po­si­tion at Flat­iron af­ter a stint at Duke. She’s been tapped as the like­ly in­ter­im chief, and will def­i­nite­ly make the ru­mor mill as pos­si­bly the next head of the FDA. But she’s still large­ly an un­known in the in­dus­try, so don’t ex­pect much en­thu­si­asm right off the bat.

On the oth­er hand, if she gets the in­ter­im job, she’ll have a chance to shine. And Pres­i­dent Trump doesn’t seem pressed to get big jobs filled fast in Wash­ing­ton DC, so the in­ter­im role could last awhile. 

Na­tion­al Can­cer In­sti­tutes di­rec­tor Ned Sharp­less has emerged as one of the most fre­quent­ly cit­ed can­di­dates for the FDA job, with an ear­ly push from the Wall Street Jour­nal, which al­so quick­ly named Brett Giroir, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary at HHS, as an­oth­er pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor.

Jim O’Neill ev­i­dent­ly had a shot at the job a cou­ple of years ago, but the in­dus­try was shocked by the fact that Pe­ter Thiel’s can­di­date was even in the run­ning. He’s been as­so­ci­at­ed with some loony en­deav­ors, like seast­eading and the hunt for im­mor­tal­i­ty, and the in­dus­try sees him as a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen. In this en­vi­ron­ment, that makes O’Neill a cred­i­ble threat again, though it seems far fetched.

But he’s still go­ing to make every­one’s list. Fun­ny how that works.

Richard Paz­dur

How about Richard Paz­dur, the on­col­o­gy czar at the FDA whose com­mit­ment to rapid drug re­views has played a ma­te­r­i­al role in rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing on­col­o­gy R&D over the last 5 years? It’s been sug­gest­ed. But when it comes to agency in­sid­ers, though, no one out­shines Janet Wood­cock at CDER. She not on­ly knows where the bod­ies are buried at the FDA, she of­ten helped put them there. Maybe she could cap a decades-long run as FDA chief? 

Janet Wood­cock

Stranger things have hap­pened.

Two years ago I called Got­tlieb the Re­pub­li­can shad­ow com­mis­sion­er, out front of­fer­ing po­si­tions on re­form­ing the FDA. We don’t seem to have one of those now, by virtue of the fact that no one ex­pect­ed Got­tlieb to stand down so soon. And with a na­tion­al elec­tion loom­ing next year with a wild­ly con­tro­ver­sial pres­i­dent, any­one who does get the job may ul­ti­mate­ly prove an in­ter­im chief in any case.

Bio­phar­ma hates reg­u­la­to­ry un­cer­tain­ty of any kind. This year we’ve had a gov­ern­ment shut­down fol­lowed by an abrupt res­ig­na­tion by Got­tlieb. Un­cer­tain­ty at the FDA ap­pears to now be the rule. 

In a note to in­vestors, Jef­feries’ Michael Yee not­ed that who­ev­er steps in will find an agency that has es­tab­lished a “pro-in­no­va­tion” ap­proach that won’t sud­den­ly end now, re­gard­less of who gets the job.

That sounds rea­son­able, but it won’t stop the fret­ting that’s go­ing on now. Ap­proach­es are one thing, ex­e­cu­tion is an­oth­er.

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His­toric drug pric­ing re­forms pass; Pfiz­er ac­quires GBT; The long search for non-opi­oid pain drugs; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

The Endpoints Weekly has officially crossed the 60,000 mark on subscribers — thanks to all of your support. As the editorial team grows, we’ve been able to do a lot more, with many of those on display this week. Be sure to check out Lei Lei Wu’s deep dive on pain R&D. If you missed it, you may also rewatch her companion panel here.

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Gold for adults, sil­ver for in­fants: Pfiz­er's Pre­vnar 2.0 head­ed to FDA months af­ter Mer­ck­'s green light

Pfizer was first to the finish line for the next-gen pneumococcal vaccine in adults, but Merck beat its rival with a jab for children in June.

Now, two months after Merck’s 15-valent Vaxneuvance won the FDA stamp of approval for kids, Pfizer is out with some late-stage data on its 20-valent shot for infants.

Known as Prevnar 20 for adults, Pfizer’s 20vPnC will head to the FDA by the end of this year for an approval request in infants, the Big Pharma said Friday morning. Discussions with the FDA will occur first and more late-stage pediatric trials are expected to read out soon, informing the regulatory pathway in other countries and regions.

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No­var­tis re­ports two pa­tient deaths af­ter treat­ment with Zol­gens­ma

Two children with spinal muscular atrophy have died after receiving Novartis’ Zolgensma, a gene therapy designed as a one-time treatment for the rare fatal disease.

The deaths, which resulted from acute liver failure, occurred in Russia and Kazakhstan, Novartis confirmed in a statement to Endpoints News. Having notified health authorities across all the markets where Zolgensma is available, it will update the drug label “to specify that fatal acute liver failure has been reported,” a spokesperson wrote.

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House pass­es his­toric drug pric­ing re­forms, lin­ing up decades-in-the-mak­ing win for Biden and De­moc­rats

The US House of Representatives today voted along party lines (all Dems voted for it), 220-207 to pass new, wide-ranging legislation that will allow Medicare drug price negotiations for the first time ever, and cap seniors’ drug expenses to $2,000 per year and seniors’ insulin costs at $35 per month.

Setting up a major victory for President Joe Biden, representatives returned from their summer recess to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, even as many noted the bill would only modestly reduce inflation.

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Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images)

Sen­ate Fi­nance chair con­tin­ues his in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to phar­ma tax­es with re­quests for Am­gen

Amgen is the latest pharma company to appear on the radar of Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is investigating the way pharma companies are using subsidiaries in low- or zero-tax countries to lower their tax bills.

Like its peers Merck, AbbVie and Bristol Myers Squibb, Wyden notes how Amgen uses its Puerto Rico operations to consistently pay tax rates that are substantially lower than the U.S. corporate tax rate of 21%, with an effective tax rate of 10.7% in 2020 and 12.1% in 2021.

FDA ap­proves sec­ond in­di­ca­tion for As­traZeneca and Dai­ichi's En­her­tu in less than a week

AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo’s antibody-drug conjugate Enhertu scored its second approval in less than a week, this time for a subset of lung cancer patients.

Enhertu received accelerated approval on Thursday to treat adults with unresectable or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) whose tumors have activating HER2 (ERBB2) mutations, and who have already received a prior systemic therapy.

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J&J to re­move talc prod­ucts from shelves world­wide, re­plac­ing with corn­starch-based port­fo­lio

After controversially spinning out its talc liabilities and filing for bankruptcy in an attempt to settle 38,000 lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson is now changing up the formula for its baby powder products.

J&J is beginning the transition to an all cornstarch-based baby powder portfolio, the pharma giant announced on Thursday — just months after a federal judge ruled in favor of its “Texas two-step” bankruptcy to settle allegations that its talc products contained asbestos and caused cancer. An appeals court has since agreed to revisit that case.

CSL is gathering its four business units under a unified brand identity strategy (Credit: CSL company site)

CSL brings Se­qirus, Vi­for un­der par­ent um­brel­la brand in iden­ti­ty re­vamp

CSL is gathering its brands under the family name umbrella, renaming its vaccine and newly acquired nephrology specialty businesses with the parent initials.

CSL Seqirus and CSL Vifor join CSL Plasma and CSL Behring as the four now uniformly branded business units of the global biopharma. The Seqirus vaccine division was formed in 2015 with the combination of bioCSL and its purchase of Novartis’ flu vaccine business. CSL picked up Vifor Pharma late last year in an $11.7 billion deal for the nephrology, iron deficiency and cardio-renal drug developer.

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