Bristol Myers Squibb commits $300 million to combat racial disparities, but declines to release own demographic data
After the police killing of George Floyd, a flurry of pharma and biotech companies, executives and investors jumped out to make statements, either expressing support for Black Lives Matter and the protests or condemning systemic racism.
Now, a Big Pharma company is publicly putting some teeth behind those statements. This morning, Bristol Myers Squibb announced they would spend $300 million on a broad effort to reduce racial health disparities, and diversify both their clinical trials and their own executive team and workforce.
“What I’m really excited about is that this is a tangible view,” Winselow Tucker, Bristol Myers’ US commercial hematology lead told Endpoints News, “that we’re not just looking externally, we’re also looking internally as well to figure out how can we support the right equity across both our internal organizations and in the communities of patients that we serve.”
At $60 million, when calculated on an annual basis, the initiative will be small in comparison to some of Bristol Myers Squibb’s other expenditures; it represents just 1.7% of its 2019 profits and .2% of its 2019 revenue. Still, it represents the largest financial commitment any major drugmaker has made to combat racial inequality or change their internal structure, and one of the first times a company in the industry has specifically set goals for changing their executive structure.
Internally, by 2022 the pharma giant has committed to achieving global gender parity at the executive level — they’re now at 53% women for total employees — and doubling the number of Black and Latino/Hispanic executives by 2022. They also committed to new efforts to open clinical trial sites in underserved areas.
Bristol Myers declined, however, to share a racial breakdown for their current workforce or for the patients enrolled in their clinical trials.
New BIO CEO Michelle McMurry-Heath, who has been outspoken on representation within the industry and clinical trials, praised the company’s efforts.
”It’s incredibly important our companies are coming out and showing leadership on this; it’s exactly what they should be doing,” McMurry-Heath told Endpoints. “And you’ll probably see more. I know many are trying not to be glib in this. They’re really taking some time to focus internally and figure out what the best approach is going forward.”
Tucker and fellow US commercial lead Adam Lenkowsky said the company had been discussing such initiatives over the last few years, but they came to a head in the spring, amid the protests over the police killing of Floyd and Breonna Taylor and as data emerged on the disproportionate toll Covid-19 was taking on Black and Latino communities.
“Because of what we’ve seen with the death of George Floyd and the death of Breonna Taylor, this has become a burning platform in the US,” Lenkowsky told Endpoints.
Over the last few months, they said, Bristol Myers had been meeting with physicians and various advocacy and patient groups, including Stand Up to Cancer, the National MS Society, and the American College of Cardiology. Asked if the company had consulted with any racial justice groups, they pointed to talks with the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP and discussions with employees inside the organization.
“Our diverse employees — they are living very day-to-day, particularly within the US, with racial justice conversations, and we have had very candid conversations with them to understand how they’re feeling and where they believe as well we can have an impact,” Tucker said.
Much of the new initiative will focus on clinical trials. Racial minorities have long been left out of clinical trial research, with Black people making up just 5% of current trial participants despite representing 14% of the population and people of Hispanic origin making up just 1% of clinical trial participants despite representing 18% of the population. It’s an inequity that leads to what researchers have called a “one-size-fits-all” approach to medicine that both leaves some desperately ill patients without access to experimental drugs and can leave researchers unaware of how new medicines affect different populations.
Bristol Myers didn’t set a goal for representation in their trials, but the company said they would set up new infrastructure in under-served rural and urban areas. Lenkowsky said that would include in-roads in places such as Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They also committed to training and developing 250 new “racially and ethnically diverse” clinical investigators.
Pharma broadly has long been criticized for high prices that reduce access to life-saving medicines, particularly those from marginalized groups. Bristol Myers said they would “accelerate” efforts to educate on disease awareness and their patient support programs to help patients who can’t afford the medicines. They also pointed to commitments they made earlier the year to cover medicines for anyone who has lost health insurance as a result of the Covid-19.
Additionally, the drugmaker said it would spend $1 billion on Black and “other diverse-owned businesses” by 2025, to help create jobs and spur economic activity. They’ve also agreed to match 2-1 employee donations to organizations fighting health disparities.
Tucker said he would like to see other companies in the industry take similar steps.
“If you look at where we focus — whether it’s clinical trials, whether it’s representation within our employees, whether it’s the supplies — these are not situations that are unique to Bristol Myers Squibb,” he said.