PHILADELPHIA — The drug industry didn’t really feel the heat here at the Democratic National Convention.
Once you left Wells Fargo Arena, where Bernie Sanders thundered, “The greed of the drug companies must end!” in the climatic speech of the convention’s opening night, drug lobbyists could be seen chatting with senior Democratic officials in crowded bars, picking at spreads of choice charcuterie and cheese.
In between band sets at one such event, cosponsored by the drug company Astellas, Democratic congressmen lauded free trade — on the same day that streams of Sanders supporters had chanted their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
You might think it would be awkward to be a drug industry lobbyist at a convention full of pharma-bashing Democrats. But for the innumerable drug reps who poured into town for a once-every-four-years schmoozing extravaganza, it didn’t seem to matter much that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has spent almost as much time as Sanders lambasting the industry on the trail, or that a single tweet of hers had sent pharma stocks tumbling last fall.
“I’ve not really gotten any blowback about the industry at receptions,” one lobbyist for a major drug company said. “But hopefully, people would realize that’s rude at a party.”
Another representative for a top firm also shrugged. “I really haven’t noticed it.”
Maybe it’s the heat?
The recent political firestorm wasn’t completely ignored at panel discussions and other events surrounding the convention. Jim Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, which represents biotech firms in Washington, warned about the danger of “price controls” everywhere he went.
He also acknowledged that, during a discussion with the Democratic Governors Association, he had been “a bit on the defensive.”
“When I have the opportunity to tell our story to governors and members of Congress, they are persuaded,” Greenwood told STAT. “But it is often an uphill struggle, because they frequently begin with assumptions like, ‘It’s not right that drugs cost more in the U.S. than in other countries,’ or ‘The cost of drugs is skyrocketing.’”
For the most part, though, drug and biotech lobbyists were as welcome in Philadelphia as anyone else. BIO has been handing out water bottles from a small truck it has been parking throughout the city — a clever branding strategy with temperatures soaring to 90 degrees and higher in the first couple of days of the convention.
The marketing professionals manning the truck told STAT they’d had no hecklers. Who’s going to turn down free water in this weather?
It is a reminder that, despite the rhetoric on the trail this year, drug companies have maintained their standing in Washington because they enjoy broad bipartisan support. Public frustration over drug costs hasn’t erased that.
BIO hosted a charity batting practice Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park, where the Philadelphia Phillies play. At the event, which was closed to the press, an emotional video about the hope provided by biopharmaceuticals — dubbed “Time Is Precious” — played across the huge scoreboard in the outfield.
“Only bad policy can stop biotech cures,” Greenwood declared, per a tweet from an attendee, with two Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce standing beside him.
“The system that we have in the US is driving all this innovation. But it’s quite under threat,” he said the next day at a panel on innovation. “Price controls, particularly this year in this highly politicized debate, are the greatest threat to our competitiveness.”
There were nods to the industry’s troubled public image. One pharma representative introduced herself to a reporter by saying: “I’m with one of the evil drug companies.”
“I know the reputation of our industry is not good, but also I know very well this is unfair,” said Albert Bourla, a Pfizer (PFE) executive, during a discussion on global health. “I deeply believe in my heart that there is not an industry in the world that is creating so much good as the pharma industry.”
They were also often on friendly ground. Pfizer cosponsored that talk with Global Citizen, a nonprofit group with the goal of ending extreme poverty globally by 2030, and it focused on improving health in disadvantaged parts of the world. Novo Nordisk (NVO) cosponsored an event that examined ways to reduce obesity. Those are unimpeachable goals.
Clinton health advisers Chris Jennings and Neera Tanden spoke on their own panels, and they did talk about Americans’ anxiety over drug costs and Clinton’s proposals for addressing them. The issue hasn’t completely dissipated, and it likely won’t as long as upwards of 70 percent of Americans believe drug prices are unreasonably high.
But the mood in Philadelphia appeared more cordial than confrontational. It helps to remember that there are plenty of Democrats working in the industry. If you knew what you were looking for, you could spot them at the happy hours and roundtables that took over the city this week.
“I’ve spoken frankly with them about some of the issues around drug pricing. I think it’s important to have a frank conversation. I think they understand that’s where folks are coming from,” Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado told STAT. “You know, corporations employ Democrats, too, so the people who are here from the corporations tend to be Democrats, and I think they see our perspective.”