SAN FRANCISCO — Senator Bernie Sanders is “a communist,” if you ask Donald Trump. And the president-elect has “dangerous and un-American” ideas for the future of the country, according to Sanders.

But both agree on at least one thing: The pharmaceutical industry is “getting away with murder.”

Trump delivered that line early and unprompted in his press conference on Wednesday, and Sanders quickly seconded it on Twitter. (To be sure, Sanders wasn’t all in on his praise of Trump: While he agreed with the getting-away-with-murder line, he tweeted his doubts as to whether “Trump and Republicans have the guts to police drug companies and lower prices.”)

article continues after advertisement

AP

It makes for good political theater, but for the drug industry, it puts forth a nightmare scenario in which pharma could become the villain that unites the populist factions of the left and right.

Public and political outrage over the high cost of medicine in the past year has the industry playing defense. Its main defense: It’s hard, and expensive, to invent drugs, and if companies can’t charge a lot for them, they won’t have the capital — or the incentive — to invest in new treatments for desperate patients.

Some companies have tried to insulate themselves from the populist pitchforks by pledging to limit their price increases to 10 percent each year. (Predictably, this resulted in a recent slew of price hikes of 9.9 percent.) And the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s influential lobbying group, is planning an ad campaign underscoring just how tough it is to take new ideas from the lab to the drug store.

But such arguments are unlikely to sway the millions of Americans who flocked to rallies for Trump and Sanders during the presidential campaign.

And with the two now finding an unlikely common ground, it’s becoming increasingly clear to the drug industry that disdain for pharma is a bipartisan issue.

Trump’s comments set off an anxious buzz at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference on Wednesday, a sprawling biopharma gathering that brings thousands of investors and executives to San Francisco each year. Attendees crowded around Bloomberg terminals scattered about the Westin hotel, looking at a sea of red digits as Trump’s remark sent the Nasdaq Biotech Index down more than 3 percent.

“Innovation is being stifled, and that remark does not help at all,” said William Starling, the CEO of Synecor, which incubates medical device companies.

Sanders, meanwhile, took the floor of the Senate on Wednesday afternoon to rail against the industry.

“The American people pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, millions cannot afford the medicine they desperately need, but at the same time the drug companies make out like bandits and their CEOs earn exorbitant compensation packages.”

Sanders called out specific drugs that he said are more expensive in the US than in Canada, including the mental health drug Abilify, the cholesterol drug Crestor, and EpiPens for severe allergic reaction. He said he’ll soon introduce legislation to allow drugs sold for less abroad to be brought back into the US and re-sold. Absent such competition, Sanders said, drug companies “will raise prices as high as the market will allow.”

Sanders has long been a thorn in the industry’s side; his outraged tweets about the high prices of drugs have moved markets. Biopharma executives have long worried that an outburst from Trump — whether spoken or tweeted — could also damage individual companies.

Beyond that, they fear that an intense, bipartisan public focus on this issue could have devastating effects on the industry’s reputation.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals CEO Dr. Leonard Schleifer, who has been a vocal critic of his own industry, said pharma needs to figure out how to regulate itself before the government steps in and tramples on its beloved incentive structure.

“If we don’t have that, then our leadership role in producing more drugs than anyone else in the world will fall,” Schleifer said. In other words, he said, “we’ll fall under our own weight if we don’t reform pricing practices.”

Megan Thielking and Rebecca Robbins contributed reporting.

Sign up for our biotech newsletter, The Readout

Get our guide to what's new in biotech delivered each morning.

Recommended Stories