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.

George Scangos (L) and Marianne De Backer

Pi­o­neer­ing biotech icon George Scan­gos hands in his re­tire­ment pa­pers — and this time it’s for re­al

George Scangos, one of the all-time great biotech CEOs, says the time has come to turn over the reins one last time.

The 74-year-old biotech legend spent close to three decades in a CEO post. The first was at Exelixis — which is still heavily focused on a drug Scangos advanced in the clinic. The second “retirement” was at Biogen, where he and his team were credited with a big turnaround with the now fading MS blockbuster Tecfidera. And the third comes at Vir, where he traded in his Big Biotech credentials for a marquee founder’s role back on the West Coast, hammering out a Covid-19 alliance with Hal Barron — then R&D chief at GSK — and breaking new ground on infectious diseases with some high-powered venture players.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

FDA re­ports ini­tial 'no sig­nal' for stroke risk with Pfiz­er boost­ers, launch­es con­comi­tant flu shot study

The FDA hasn’t detected any potential safety signals, including for stroke, in people aged 65 years and older who have received Pfizer’s bivalent Covid booster, one senior official told members of the agency’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) on Thursday.

The update comes as the FDA and CDC investigate a “preliminary signal” that may indicate an increased risk of ischemic stroke in older Americans who received Pfizer’s updated shot.

FDA cuts off use for As­traZeneca’s Covid-19 ther­a­py Evusheld

The FDA has stopped use of another drug as a result of the new coronavirus variants. On Thursday, the agency announced that AstraZeneca’s antibody combo Evusheld, which was an important prevention option for many immunocompromised people and others, is no longer authorized.

The FDA said it made its decision based on the fact that Evusheld works on fewer than 10% of circulating variants.

Evusheld was initially given emergency authorization at the end of 2021. However, as Omicron emerged, so did studies that showed Evusheld might not work against the dominant Omicron strain. In October, the FDA warned healthcare providers that Evusheld was useless against the Omicron subvariant BA.4.6. It followed that up with another announcement earlier this month that it did not think Evusheld would work against the latest Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5.

Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine (Credit: Jamie Scott Lytle)

A stem cell pi­o­neer sent an ex­per­i­ment in­to space. Pa­tients are the next fron­tier

Last July, Jeanne Loring stood on a dirt road surrounded by Florida swampland and watched as a nearby SpaceX rocket blasted into the sky. The payload included a very personal belonging: cell clusters mimicking parts of her brain.

For more than two decades, Loring has been at the forefront of a stem cell field that always seems on the brink of becoming the next thing in medicine, but has been slow to lift off.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

In a win for Re­gen­eron, No­var­tis' sy­ringe for AMD drug de­clared 'un­patentable'

Regeneron has won a patent case against Swiss pharma giant Novartis over the delivery system for its eye drug Eylea.

The US Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled that Novartis’ pre-filled syringe for injecting its eye medication Lucentis was “unpatentable” and handed the victory to Regeneron and its AMD drug Eylea.

In the initial complaint in 2020, Novartis alleged to the US International Trade Commission that certain pre-filled syringes for the intravitreal injection, and ultimately Regeneron’s delivery system for Eylea, were infringing on Novartis’ patent. Regeneron filed a petition to review Novartis’ claims in 2021.

'Tis the sea­son: GSK ad­dress­es win­ter virus surges with celebri­ty and in­flu­encer vac­cine aware­ness cam­paigns

GSK is rounding up the usual suspects this winter — flu, respiratory syncytial and even shingles viruses — for multiple marketing efforts all aimed at encouraging vaccinations.

Mom influencers take center stage in its “Flu is a Family Affair” campaign to reach family decision-makers or “chief health officers.” GSK is asking them in the digital campaign to take care of themselves, and take the family along, when they go to the pharmacy or doctor’s office for a flu vaccine.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 157,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Bris­tol My­ers claims win with CAR-T ther­a­py Breyanzi in leukemia

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to expand Breyanzi into more indications — and the pharma’s newest data readout makes progress on that front.

The Big Pharma put out word Thursday that the CAR-T cell therapy met the primary endpoint of complete response rate compared to historical control in a subset of patients with relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that were refractory to a BTK inhibitor and pretreated with a BCL-2 inhibitor.

FDA takes next step in Tor­rent Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal­s' trou­bled In­dia plant saga, is­sues OAI

The FDA has handed Torrent Pharmaceuticals an official action indicated (OAI) status for a previously inspected manufacturing facility in India.

Torrent Pharma sent a letter to the National Stock Exchange of India earlier this week with word that the manufacturer has received a “communication from the FDA determining the inspection classification as ‘Official Action Indicated’ (OAI)” for one of its sites. An OAI classification from the FDA comes after the agency has completed an inspection and determines if the facility complies with the applicable laws and regulations. Being given an OAI classification means that regulatory or administrative actions will be recommended to Torrent. However, the details on the recommended actions have not been given.

In­vestor 'misalign­men­t' leads to tR­NA biotech's shut­ter­ing

A small biotech looking to carve a lane in the tRNA field has folded, an investor and a co-founder confirmed to Endpoints News.

Similar to Flagship’s Alltrna and other upstarts like Takeda-backed hC Bioscience, the now-shuttered Theonys was attempting to go after transfer RNA, seen as a potential Swiss Army knife in the broader RNA therapeutics space. The idea is that one tRNA drug could be used across a galaxy of disorders and diseases.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 157,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.