In land­mark hear­ing, drug­mak­ers and law­mak­ers agree that US pol­i­cy on drug pric­ing is ripe for change — but there's no con­sen­sus on much else

Sev­en big phar­ma ex­ec­u­tives faced a pla­toon of US sen­a­tors on Tues­day, ex­pect­ing a dress­ing down on the in­dus­try’s track record of re­lent­less price hikes that has sparked bi­par­ti­san furor — but were in­stead treat­ed to a con­sci­en­tious de­bate, high on con­cern and low on con­tention.

Mat­ters kicked off with Sen­a­tor Ron Wyden ad­mon­ish­ing every bio­phar­ma rep­re­sen­ta­tive for their com­pa­ny’s tac­tics, in­clud­ing Ab­b­Vie pro­tect­ing its $18-bil­lion-a-year Hu­mi­ra from gener­ics like “Gol­lum with his ring,” and Pfiz­er for mak­ing the “emp­ti­est pric­ing ges­ture” by press­ing pause on hikes un­der pres­sure from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for a pe­ri­od on­ly to re­sume lat­er.

He gave way to pre­pared re­marks from the com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives: Ab­b­Vie chief $AB­BV Richard Gon­za­lez; As­traZeneca $AZN chief Pas­cal So­ri­ot; Bris­tol-My­ers $BMY chief Gio­van­ni Caforio; J&J’s $JNJ Janssen head Jen­nifer Taubert; Mer­ck $MRK chief Ken Fra­zier; Pfiz­er’s $PFE chief Al­bert Bourla and Sanofi $SNY chief Olivi­er Brandi­court.

Un­sur­pris­ing­ly, each ex­ec­u­tive blamed high list prices on the mid­dle­men: PBMs and in­sur­ers, sug­gest­ing that while the mag­ni­tude of re­bates of­fered by them were in­creas­ing, those ben­e­fits were not be­ing ac­crued to the pa­tient in the form of co-pays.

Fra­zier — Mer­ck’s fire­brand chief and de-fac­to leader of the un­like­ly troop of pan­elists thanks to his le­gal ex­per­tise (Fra­zier served as Mer­ck’s chief coun­sel back when it was fight­ing a flood of Vioxx law­suits) — al­so un­der­scored the fact that the is­sue of pric­ing is sys­temic to the US health­care sys­tem, lament­ing that pa­tients are ex­pect­ed to pay on av­er­age 13% in drug co-pays, but on­ly 3% of hos­pi­tal costs. 

Ken­neth Fra­zier, Chair­man and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer at Mer­ck, tes­ti­fies be­fore the Sen­ate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee hear­ing on drug prices on Tues­day, Feb. 26, 2019 (AP Pho­to/Pablo Mar­tinez Mon­si­vais)

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion


In gen­er­al, the drug­mak­ers voiced their sup­port for re­bate re­form. As­traZeneca’s So­ri­ot sug­gest­ed that on av­er­age, rough­ly 50% of his com­pa­ny’s list prices com­prise re­bates, and if they were to be dis­card­ed al­to­geth­er he would not be averse to cut­ting prices by the same mag­ni­tude. When asked point blank by more than one sen­a­tor about whether each ex­ec­u­tive would pledge to cut list prices if re­bates were elim­i­nat­ed, ex­ec­u­tives pro­posed cut­ting re­bates not just for Medicare but al­so on the com­mer­cial side to even the play­ing field for all drug man­u­fac­tur­ers, as suf­fi­cient in­cen­tive to low­er list prices.

An­oth­er so­lu­tion en­dorsed by the pan­el of drug­mak­ers was val­ue-based pric­ing.

Pfiz­er’s new­ly-mint­ed CEO Bourla told sen­a­tors he would pre­fer that the com­pa­ny be paid for “the heart at­tacks we pre­vent, and not the pills we sell.”  Al­though the con­cept is gain­ing trac­tion for new­er, high­er priced drugs, it has not uni­ver­sal­ly been adopt­ed. Mean­while, old­er drugs (in­clud­ing in­sulin that is sub­ject to fre­quent price hikes) are not in con­tention for such val­ue-based con­tracts.

Drug­mak­ers al­so ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm for shoring up biosim­i­lar and gener­ic com­pe­ti­tion in the Unit­ed States as a mech­a­nism to low­er drug prices.

Some pan­elists al­so en­dorsed the Cre­at­ing and Restor­ing Equal Ac­cess to Equiv­a­lent Sam­ples (CRE­ATES) Act — a bill de­signed to cre­ate a faster and more po­tent le­gal process for gener­ic man­u­fac­tur­ers to chal­lenge brand­ed drug­mak­ers that they claim are with­hold­ing drug sam­ples in or­der to ob­struct gener­ic com­pe­ti­tion. When sen­a­tors in­quired whether any of the drug­mak­ers at the hear­ing had any his­to­ry of block­ing drug sam­ples when to thwart copy­cat drug de­vel­op­ment, each de­clined that their com­pa­nies had en­gaged in any such prac­tices. But a cur­so­ry look at the FDA’s web­site sug­gests oth­er­wise.

The mood at the hear­ing was a mix­ture of cau­tious ad­mi­ra­tion for the in­dus­try for hav­ing de­vel­oped a pletho­ra of sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs, but in­cred­u­lous­ness that the Unit­ed States ef­fec­tive­ly shoul­ders the cost of in­no­va­tion, con­sid­er­ing oth­er West­ern in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions — on av­er­age — pay low­er drug prices.

“Why are we a price tak­er, when we are the largest pur­chas­er?,” Sen­a­tor Bill Cas­sidy asked in one ex­change. An­oth­er sen­a­tor cit­ed sup­port for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­pos­al to im­port drug prices from over­seas, but was im­me­di­ate­ly re­buffed by the drug­mak­ers who ar­gued that a num­ber of these na­tions do not ac­cept new med­i­cines due to their pric­ing poli­cies, of­ten re­strict­ing ac­cess or de­clin­ing to adopt them al­to­geth­er.

Al­though drug­mak­ers were asked whether their tax breaks — en­gi­neered by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — had been used to cut prices, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies large­ly ac­knowl­edged that the sav­ings had large­ly not been used in that fash­ion.

The main vil­lain of the hear­ing was Ab­b­Vie chief Gon­za­lez, who was per­sis­tent­ly called out for his com­pa­ny’s patent-ag­gres­sive ap­proach to pro­tect­ing their biggest, most lu­cra­tive as­set Hu­mi­ra — the world’s largest sell­ing drug whose main US patent ran out in 2016. Gon­za­lez’s main talk­ing point was that that while some Eu­ro­pean na­tions have bagged an 80% dis­count on Hu­mi­ra, the US price (and sales) is what keeps the com­pa­ny’s R&D en­gine hot.

Per­sis­tent ques­tions by one sen­a­tor to adopt Cost­co-style pric­ing — get­ting sales via vol­ume ver­sus pric­ing — got a tepid re­sponse from pan­elists. But, one pro­pos­al did whet pan­elist ap­petites. Sen­a­tor Shel­don White­house called out the bad ac­tors and “non-in­no­va­tors” of the in­dus­try (re­mem­ber Shkre­li, the poster boy of bad, smug biotech?) that buy off-patent drugs used in con­di­tions with few or no treat­ment op­tions and jack up their prices cre­at­ing a mo­nop­oly and hang­ing pa­tients who use these decades-old treat­ments out to dry. When we try to crack down against these ac­tors, White­house said, your lob­by­ists push­back. “Help us at least solve that prob­lem…turn off your lawyers and your lob­by­ists!” he said to the nod­ding heads of in­dus­try reps. “We will,” Fra­zier re­spond­ed.

Ear­li­er on, Sen­a­tor Bob Menen­dez made a thin­ly veiled threat to the crop of pan­elists be­fore him, sug­gest­ing that if drug­mak­ers were un­will­ing to rein in prices, “pol­i­cy­mak­ers are go­ing to do it for you.”  At the end of the pro­ceed­ings, the pan­elists large­ly agreed. The “gov­ern­ment has to step up and change the rules,” So­ri­ot said. Now there’s just the small mat­ter of fig­ur­ing out how to do that.

Un­pack­ing the Aduhelm de­ci­sion, Ver­tex's half full glass, a $525M J&J breakup, 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.

By now you have surely read about the FDA’s controversial approval of Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug and all its reverberations. But I’d still recommend checking out the meaty recap below to make sure you didn’t miss all the angles that the Endpoints team has covered. If you’d rather look ahead, look no further than our three-day virtual panels next week at BIO, where we will discuss what the new normal means for every part of the industry.

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What does a clear ma­jor­i­ty of the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try think of the FDA ap­proval of ad­u­canum­ab? 'Hor­ri­fy­ing' 'Dan­ger­ous' 'Con­fus­ing' 'Dis­as­ter'

Over the years, we’ve become used to seeing a consensus emerge early in our industry polls at Endpoints News. And when we took the pulse of drug hunters on the heels of a controversial FDA approval for aducanumab this week, it became immediately apparent that the vast majority of our readers — heavily concentrated among biopharma staffers and execs — were incensed by what they had just witnessed.

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David Knopman (Mayo Clinic via YouTube)

A sec­ond ad­comm mem­ber aban­dons his post in af­ter­math of con­tro­ver­sial ad­u­canum­ab de­ci­sion

As the fallout from the FDA’s approval of Alzheimer’s med aducanumab grows, a second member of the adcomm overseeing that drug’s review has walked away. But even with two experts now having resigned from that committee in protest, is there enough broad-level outrage to prevent another aducanumab from getting approved?

The FDA on Wednesday lost another member of its Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee as Mayo Clinic neurologist David Knopman hit the exit over the agency’s decision to approve Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm despite the committee’s near-unanimous vote against it.

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Aaron Kesselheim (Scott Eisen/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Har­vard’s Aaron Kessel­heim re­signs from ex­pert pan­el in wake of ad­u­canum­ab OK, blast­ing FDA for ‘worst drug ap­proval de­ci­sion in re­cent U.S. his­to­ry'

A third member of the FDA’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee has resigned in the wake of Biogen’s controversial Aduhelm approval, slamming the agency as he left and further deepening the controversy surrounding the decision.

Harvard University professor Aaron Kesselheim quit in protest Thursday afternoon, calling the Aduhelm OK “probably the worst drug approval decision in recent U.S. history.” Kesselheim follows both Joel Perlmutter, a neurologist from Washington University in St. Louis, and David Knopman, a neurologist from the Mayo Clinic, out the door.

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Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner, at Thursday's Senate Appropriations hearing (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors lam­bast new Alzheimer’s drug’s price but give Janet Wood­cock a free pass on the ap­proval de­ci­sion

Senate Finance Democrats took aim at Biogen’s pricey new Alzheimer’s drug on Thursday, but members on both sides of the aisle at a separate appropriations hearing didn’t question acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock on the approval.

“I was appalled that Biogen priced their Alzheimer’s drug approved by the FDA at $56,000 per year — I’m not going to debate whether this is effective or not, but it’s double the household median income for Michiganders over the age of 65,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said at the finance hearing.

FDA au­tho­rizes about 10M J&J vac­cine dos­es, trash­es 60M more from trou­bled Emer­gent plant

The FDA on Friday released about 10 million doses of J&J’s vaccine for use, and disposed of another 60 million doses that were manufactured at the now-shuttered Emergent BioSolutions facility in Baltimore where cross-contamination occurred.

The agency said it’s not yet ready to allow the Emergent plant to be included in the J&J EUA, but that may occur soon. FDA came to the decision to authorize some of the doses after reviewing facility records and quality testing results.

Paul Hudson, Sanofi CEO (Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)

Months af­ter FDA re­jec­tion, Sanofi touts piv­otal win for rare dis­ease drug su­tim­limab as it preps to re­file

One of the pillar drugs of Sanofi’s $11.6 billion pickup of Bioverativ hit a big setback late last year when the FDA sent its application for approval back. Now, as Sanofi gears up to resubmit the drug for review, the drugmaker is touting pivotal data it hopes will help take it over the finish line.

Sanofi’s sutimlimab nailed all three of its primary endpoints in its Phase III CADENZA study for patients with cold agglutinin disease, a rare disorder that can cause severe anemia, without a recent history of blood transfusion, the French drugmaker said Friday. The topline results will be presented at this weekend’s virtual EHA meeting.

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Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex CEO (BIO via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex strikes out on its lat­est big shot at a rare ge­net­ic dis­ease. But they're go­ing to keep on swing­ing

It’s been several months since Vertex culled one of its small molecules for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD), taking a big hit after evidence of liver damage surfaced in a key Phase II trial. Now we learned that the company has whiffed on its second shot, and there’s nothing left in the clinic to treat the rare genetic disease — but that won’t stop it from trying.

Despite avoiding the safety issues that plagued the last candidate, Vertex $VRTX is taking the axe to VX-864 after Phase II results revealed the magnitude of the drug’s response is “unlikely to translate into substantial clinical benefit.” As a result of the news, the company’s stock fell 12.5% after hours.

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Bris­tol My­er­s' CAR-T Breyanzi busts out a win in ear­li­er-line lym­phoma, po­ten­tial­ly crack­ing open an ex­pand­ed mar­ket

Despite being third to the field in B cell lymphoma, Bristol Myers Squibb has repeatedly argued its CAR-T Breyanzi could have the juice to overtake its older competitors. Going into earlier lines of therapy may be the golden ticket on that front, and now Breyanzi has a late-stage win to back up that effort.

Bristol Myers’s Breyanzi beat out physicians’-choice salvage therapy followed by high-dose chemo and a stem cell transplant — what the drugmaker called a “gold standard treatment” — in second-line patients with relapsed or refractory large B cell lymphoma, according to topline data from the Phase III TRANSFORM study released Thursday.