WASHINGTON — One’s a college dropout. One’s a self-proclaimed street fighter. And one survived a presidential tweetstorm.
Meet pharma’s new Gang of Seven, a disparate group of executives about to face congressional questions on what they have in common: Their companies sell drugs, and drugs keep getting more expensive.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee will poke, prod, and pry the leaders of Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, AbbVie, Sanofi, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. It’s a televised crucible that arrives amid bipartisan furor over the cost of medicine. Just how those seven executives defend themselves could have sweeping implications for how Washington deals with drug pricing.
But who are these people? Here’s a quick guide to the quirks, qualifications, and questionable decisions each leader will bring to the Senate.
Pascal Soriot: the fighter
Soriot, who heads AstraZeneca, has a penchant for going off message — and making headlines when he does. He told the Financial Times back in 2017 that he “had one [fist fight] probably every week” during his childhood in Paris. And he groused to a reporter at London’s The Times earlier this year that despite his $12 million salary he was “the lowest-paid CEO in the whole industry,” which he added was “annoying to some extent.”
And he’s no stranger to legislative inquiry. Back in 2014, when Pfizer made a hostile takeover bid for AstraZeneca, Soriot set alight an already testy process by telling a U.K. parliamentary hearing that a merger between the companies could result in patient deaths.
“I think AZ would probably be a little nervous about what he would say in this context,” one drug industry lobbyist told STAT.
But Soriot may not be so pugnacious with lawmakers on the subject of drug pricing. His company was one of the first to enthusiastically support the Trump administration’s recent idea to eliminate drug rebates, and Soriot has said he welcomes the opportunity to testify before the Senate.
“Our message is we are dedicated to science and innovation and essentially we think that pharmaceuticals can be part of the solution by reducing the totality of health care costs,” Soriot told Bloomberg last week.
Kenneth Frazier: the saint
Over the past few years, Merck’s CEO has pulled off an unlikely feat, becoming a sought-after spokesman for corporate America and a moral authority among the Fortune 500 set, despite coming from an industry that consistently polls among the nation’s least admired.
And his ability to tread between raindrops might make him pharma’s best hope for avoiding a PR disaster Tuesday.
Frazier has no insulin prices to defend, no patent thicket to account for, and no tax-dodging corporate merger to explain. Instead, Merck has pledged that the net prices of its drugs would not outpace the rate of inflation each year. And, breaking from its peers, Frazier’s company lowered the list prices of about a half dozen drugs in its portfolio, notably reducing the cost of its hepatitis C treatment by 60 percent.
As biopharma investor Brad Loncar wrote on Twitter, “We’d be lucky as an industry if Ken Frazier did this hearing and everyone else’s schedule was busy.” There’ll be no such luck, but the industry can hope that the words of pharma’s favorite son resonate loudest come Tuesday.
Olivier Brandicourt: the heel
If rhetoric in Washington over the last few months is any indication, Brandicourt may end up being the sacrificial lamb of Tuesday’s hearing. Brandicourt, the bespectacled French doctor who has led Sanofi since 2015, is likely to take the fall for the rapidly escalating cost of insulin.
Sanofi, which makes the world’s top-selling insulin, Lantus, has increased the product’s list price fourfold since 2007. And the company has also fought tooth and nail to protect the drug from generic competition, filing more than 70 patents and taking two companies to court to block cheaper versions from coming to market.
Brandicourt has taken a more conciliatory tone as of late. “Bottom line is we understand of course the anger in the U.S. about rising prescription drug costs for patients,” he told investors on a conference call this month. “We also know that too often patients are struggling to afford the medicine they need, and patient out-of-pocket costs continue to rise.”
And Sanofi is planning to use Tuesday’s hearing not to quarrel with lawmakers, but to paint themselves as willing partners in bringing down prices. “Patients have not benefited from our actions to date,” Adam Gluck, Sanofi’s head of U.S. external affairs, told STAT. “We need to do a better job of bringing more solutions focused on helping patients and look forward to doing so next week.”
Richard Gonzalez: the poster child
Gonzalez has a unique story — he never graduated college, survived throat cancer, and came out of an early retirement to lead AbbVie. But lawmakers are going to want to talk to him about one thing: Humira.
The drug, which treats a slew of inflammatory diseases including arthritis and psoriasis, has been consistently held up by lawmakers and drug pricing advocates alike as an example of gamesmanship meant to artificially inflate drug prices.
Humira is on pace to become the most lucrative product in pharmaceutical industry history, bringing in about $18 billion a year for AbbVie. The drug’s main patent expired years ago, but AbbVie has employed every conceivable legal tactic to thwart off-brand competition. As it stands, AbbVie is poised to retain exclusive U.S. rights to Humira through 2023, more than 20 years after the drug won its first approval from FDA.
In the intervening years, the price of Humira has more than doubled to $38,000 per year, something Gonzalez will almost certainly be asked to explain.
Jennifer Taubert: the wonk
Taubert is not only the lone female set to address the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, she’s also the only one who doesn’t hold the title of CEO.
As executive vice president of J&J, she’s kept a lower profile than her boss, Alex Gorsky, the Army veteran who leads spin classes for employees, dined with President Trump, and has even briefed freshman lawmakers on how Washington works. But Taubert is arguably the best suited to answer lawmaker’s questions.
Taubert — who represents J&J at both the major drug industry lobbies, PhRMA and BIO — can be found in countless company videos explaining J&J’s pricing strategy with ease. “I’ve been impressed with her at board meetings,” one drug industry lobbyist told STAT.
And Johnson & Johnson, under Gorsky and Taubert’s leadership, has expertly navigated the increasingly hostile political climate in Washington — playing nice with the Trump administration on some of its policy priorities, for example, while continuing to raise drug prices. The company’s recent decision to voluntarily list its prices in TV ads won praise from health secretary Alex Azar. It remains to be seen, however, whether lawmakers will be as wooed by J&J’s message.
Albert Bourla: the new guy
Albert Bourla has been the CEO of Pfizer for less than two months, but he’s about to get a baptism by fire. Not only is Bourla replacing Ian Read — the outgoing CEO who famously tangled with President Trump last year over Pfizer’s price hikes — but he’s sure to face extra grilling from lawmakers, like Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the committee’s highest ranking Democrat, who has repeatedly singled out Pfizer over its drug pricing policies, including for its pricey nerve pain drug, Lyrica.
Bourla is a company man who has worked his way up at Pfizer over 25 years, rising from a technical director in the company’s animal health division to chief operating officer and now CEO. Despite his stellar resume, he’s rarely been in the spotlight. Interviews with Bourla are few and far between, and they’re rarely on hot-button issues like drug pricing. (One of the only video interviews STAT could find online was a conversation about Pfizer’s newest vaccine for boar taint.)
In one of his few public appearances since taking over as CEO, Bourla made a stark decree: “Things are changing in Pfizer.” But standing before a panel of prying senators, he may want to take a page from Pfizer’s history. Read, after all, with a wry smirk and pugnacious wit took on an angry president, a suspicious parliament, and even a C-suite peer to defend the company’s practices.
Giovanni Caforio: the odd man out
Bristol-Myers Squibb, with its 150-year history and enviable name recognition, might seem like a natural presence on the Senate’s hit list of drug industry heavyweights. But the past decade has seen the company slim down, refocus, and transform itself into something more akin to a sizable biotech firm than the global pharma cephalopods on this list.
And that makes Caforio, a soft-spoken Italian national who took the reins at Bristol in 2015, look a little out of place. The company has long since sold off its consumer business, its nutritional division, and its aging stable of yesteryear pills, investing instead in the kind of biological treatments that turned Genentech and Genzyme into household names.
Bristol’s biggest success under Caforio is a cancer treatment called Opdivo, which has generated billions in revenue. At about $150,000 a year, the drug is unquestionably expensive, but its dramatic results in a host of tumor types have helped Bristol evade the opprobrium that has dogged its peers.
All that said, Caforio might have quite literally bought his way into a legislative headache. In January, Bristol agreed to acquire Celgene for about $74 billion. And while the merger is yet to close, absorbing Celgene means Bristol will inherit Revlimid, a cancer drug whose price has risen about 145 percent since it was first approved. None of that happened on Caforio’s watch, but lawmakers might hold him accountable anyway.