itans of the automotive, banking, and technology industries have spoken out in recent days against President Donald Trump’s move to block arrivals from seven Muslim-majority nations.
But the pharmaceutical sector, which relies disproportionately on immigrant labor, has been almost universally silent — perhaps in a bid to avoid rousing Trump’s ire before a crucial meeting Tuesday morning at the White House.
STAT reached out to the 15 biggest drug companies about the immigration ban; only Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Novartis responded with statements — and they simply expressed support for affected employees, without taking a stance on Trump’s action.
The industry’s biggest lobbying group, PhRMA, has also remained mum. Trump is scheduled to meet with PhRMA executives on Tuesday morning.
“My guess is pharma is waiting to see how it plays out and which side the public opinion goes,” said Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School. “I think that’s prudent — but another word for prudent, of course, is ‘cowardly.’”
Among pharma CEOs, only Brent Saunders, the chief executive of Allergan, addressed the issue directly, tweeting Sunday that he opposes “any policy that puts limitations on our ability to attract the best and diverse talent.”
Immigrants make up roughly one-third of the drug industry’s research and development workforce, according to a 2014 study by George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research.
Pharma is generally proud of its diversity: A few days before the Trump enacted the ban, J&J published on its website the story of employee Abdullah Al Hommada, who fled his native Syria for the Netherlands and now works at the company’s Janssen division. Under Trump’s executive order, he is now unable to visit J&J’s New Jersey headquarters.
Pharma’s reticence to speak out contrasts sharply with the technology industry, where the CEOs of Facebook, Netflix, Salesforce, and Twitter all criticized the ban. The National Venture Capital Association, which counts 300 firms among its membership, said the order is “hostile to many of our core beliefs.” Google cofounder Sergey Brin even joined a protest at the San Francisco International Airport.
Many biotech entrepreneurs and investors flooded Twitter over the weekend with posts denouncing the order as an affront to liberty and a sure-fire way to squash innovation. Jeff Huber, CEO of blood testing startup Grail, wrote that he was “saddened and ashamed” of Trump’s action. Agios CEO Dr. David Schenkein wrote that he would not be alive were his parents not allowed into the US after fleeing the Holocaust.
While individual biotech executives spoke out, their trade group, BIO, has not issued a statement, aside from a cryptic tweet from the group’s CEO, former Republican Congressman James Greenwood:
Any chance you might allow me to look at and think about this prior to your judgements?
— Jim Greenwood (@JimGreenwood) January 29, 2017
“You could look at this silence as not poking the bear,” said Pierre Azoulay, a professor who teaches the business of biopharma at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.
He wasn’t surprised that startup CEOs spoke up while the major players did not: “There are a lot more ways for the Trump administration to hurt Big Pharma firms with products on the market than there are ways for the Trump administration to hurt biotech firms.”
The industry already has reason to be wary of provoking the president. Earlier this month, Trump’s unprompted condemnation of the pharma as “getting away with murder” sent stock prices falling. He has repeatedly called for allowing Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices, which would be bad for the industry’s bottom line, and he has advocated legalizing the importation of medicines from nations where prices are lower.
Standing up against the immigration ban — or any other Trump policy — could risk upsetting an administration that has not been shy about lashing out against companies that don’t toe the line.
On the other hand, the world’s biggest drug makers might be missing a major opportunity by sitting on their hands.
The CEOs of Amazon, Starbucks, and Airbnb got heaps of positive press for their vocal opposition to Trump’s order. Pharma, which has mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to repair its image — a campaign with the tagline “Go Boldly” — could use all the plaudits it can get.
And by staying quiet, the industry risks alienating its many foreign-born workers.
“I think pharma CEOs are damaging their standing with their employees by staying mum in the current debate,” said Bernard Munos, who spent 30 years at Eli Lilly and now consults for drug companies. “They are as sensitive to Trump’s vilification as anyone. The fact that their bosses don’t have much to say about it must be a disappointment.”
Allergan’s Saunders said he hasn’t tried to cajole his fellow pharma CEOs to address the issue, but he believes they should. “We always need to speak up in these types of situations,” he told STAT. “Sad others don’t feel the same way.”
His lonely stance against the executive order could turn Saunders into a presidential target. He is, after all, one of the best-paid CEOs in biopharma. And after announcing a “social contract” to keep drug price hikes below 10 percent a year, his company raised a slew of prices by 9.5 percent. That could be a tempting topic for a Trump tweet.
That’s why Greely applauded Saunders for standing up for his values — and then swiftly added: “If it turns out to be a bad mistake, I’ll be happy I don’t own stock in Allergan.”
Ed Silverman contributed reporting.