Industry leaders need to speak out now more than ever
Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.
The House impeachment managers presented a gripping, visceral case two weeks ago in prosecuting the 45th president for incitement of mob violence to stop the certification of a free and fair US election.
Yet never has a case so damning presaged an acquittal so foregone. Seven brave senators crossed the aisle to do the right thing and vote for a republic, if we can keep it.
Just because the impeachment trial is over does not mean the threat to our democratic norms is. The Senate acquittal comes with a long-term cost: the hypervigilance of the American people. It is up to all of us to determine what the former president’s conduct means for our nation’s future.
In biotechnology, our day job is to discover and develop innovative, groundbreaking therapies and see that they get delivered fairly to the world’s patient populations. My company, Nkarta Therapeutics, is committed to realizing the potential of the body’s natural killer cells to treat cancer. As CEOs, intensive focus on our day jobs does not excuse us from the role that our boards and colleagues rely on us to play, which is to lead. Leadership, at its core, means calling out bad behavior and standing up for what is right.
In the 2020 election, the American people voted for a new administration committed to scientific integrity, social justice, racial reconciliation and economic renewal. However, I believe that the last four years unleashed malevolent forces in our society; how quickly, and if, Pandora’s box can be closed is an open question.
Emerging biotech companies recruit top scientists from every race, culture and background. For me, building an inclusive culture that truly celebrates our differences means that silence is not an option. I once had an investor call me and fret that he had Googled my company name and saw as many articles on the first screen about social justice as he did about breakthrough science. I asked him if he had any doubts that I am doing everything in my power to succeed scientifically and financially. “None whatsoever,” he said.
“That makes me happy to hear,” I replied. “Those articles you saw — and the company values they represent — are a big reason why the team is working so hard on the science and feels as invested in this company as you do.”
Historically, many biopharmaceutical CEOs have been careful to watch our words so we do not alienate the party that believes in the free markets upon which our success ultimately depends. However, I have become increasingly outspoken in my belief that biotech CEOs need to be more outspoken in their beliefs.
In today’s political environment, I believe it is more important than ever that we show the party in power our hearts, our true values and our commitment to patients. For me, that starts with speaking out against a new breed of cult-of-personality populism that disdains scientific knowledge, traffics in racism and violent riots and undermines democracy.
American leaders across government, industry, media, education and beyond have a special responsibility to use our voices to defend shared values that should transcend partisan affiliation. The freedoms too many Americans take for granted can be instantly lost, and traditional allies of conservatives like the biopharmaceutical industry are uniquely situated to demarcate uncrossable lines.
Why take the risk? Because silence is a greater risk. Our industry depends on democratic stability and the market confidence it inspires. Stable markets are why biotech entrepreneurs can raise the enormous capital required to bring longshot breakthroughs to patients. For this reason and many more, we cannot turn our heads at threats to the foundation of the U.S. political and economic system.
That’s why the biopharmaceutical industry decided to reconsider political contributions to members of Congress who supported overturning the results of a constitutionally proper and exhaustively adjudicated election. As the vice chair of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the largest biotech industry group, I was heartened that so many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle agreed that this was the right course of action.
But the best way to combat discrimination and invalidate white supremacy is to embrace racial diversity and to reckon with past societal transgressions. In the healthcare system, that means acknowledging legacies of mistreatment and mistrust that have made minorities disproportionately skeptical about vaccines and clinical trial participation.
Pfizer and Moderna enrolled an impressive 42% and 37% minorities, respectively, in their Phase III COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. Media and patient advocates want to know if this is a flash in the pan or an ongoing commitment. CEOs must continue to speak out and act affirmatively if we are to maintain credibility and carry that momentum over to diversify trials in other disease areas. Programs like BIO Equality represent a long-term, industrywide effort to fight for diversity, access and affordability for all patients. Nkarta is proud to be a BIO member.
My approach to drug development is informed by my own experience living with Crohn’s disease and running a patient advocacy group for children with bowel and bladder conditions. I can speak the heresy that drug costs are, in fact, too high, because I’m talking about lowering patient out-of-pocket costs, not slashing insurance and government reimbursement rates that have enabled us to innovate life-saving vaccines and antibodies against COVID-19 with record speed.
I can agree with HHS Secretary Designee Xavier Becerra that health care is a fundamental right but strongly disagree that invalidating patents is a smart strategy to help patients access medicine. I can believe in the social contract that allows new medicines — whether small molecules, proteins, antibodies or cell therapies — to be priced for a return on investment initially so long as generics enter the market without delay, unnecessary negotiation or complication once patents expire.
I can agree that Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) is a patriot but disagree with her statement that Big Pharma companies buying up smaller ones somehow devalues them. Actually, this dynamic churn frees scientists to start new companies and innovate anew, while large companies — with their global sales teams and armies of commercial professionals and drug developers — sell, market and distribute new medicines.
Fighting for democratic ideals doesn’t mean fidelity to politicians from any particular party. For me, in these tumultuous times, it is about having a moral compass, doing what’s right and speaking up for patients and scientists who represent the glorious diversity and great hope of our planet.