Biotech group head juggles COVID-19 and drug pricing push

Michelle McMurry
Courtesy the Biotechnology Innovation Organization

Between a deadly pandemic and ongoing efforts to overhaul the nation’s drug pricing system, there has been a lot on the plate of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

Meanwhile, Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of the trade group — which represents small biotech companies as well as global giants such as Pfizer — was physically in the office for just the fourth time last week as she spoke to The Hill.

“While I’ve met most of our extended leadership team, there’re folks throughout the organization that I’ve yet to meet in person, even though I’m 18 months in,” said McMurry-Heath, who joined BIO in June 2020, getting “front-row seats” to an “unbelievable speed of progress” in the race to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

Of course, that progress has not come without controversy, from the prices at which new discoveries are sold to whether those advances are being shared equitably with lower-income countries.

McMurry-Heath was in Geneva early last week meeting with officials from the World Trade Organization, World Health Organization (WHO) and other nations about global distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

The Biden administration is backing an activist proposal at the WHO to waive patent protections for the vaccines in a bid to allow lower-income countries to gain greater access.

Doctors Without Borders delivered a petition to the White House last week pushing to “free the vaccine,” pointing to statistics that only about 6 percent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated.  

The WHO waiver and other calls to force vaccine makers to share their intellectual property have drawn fierce resistance from industry groups, including BIO.

“The entire U.S. economy is built on the idea that you should own your ideas and you should be able to get investment for your ideas and you should be able to market your ideas,” McMurry-Heath said.

“That entire patent system has underpinned all of American progress, and to undermine that is almost unforgivable,” she added.

She instead pointed to voluntary manufacturing partnerships that companies have entered into around the world, saying they are a more effective solution for boosting global vaccine access in the near term, rather than a “philosophical debate” about intellectual property.

On the domestic front, the industry also has its hands full with a push to lower drug prices in President Biden’s Build Back Better package.

After months of negotiations, lawmakers earlier this month announced a deal to include a scaled-back provision allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices for some drugs for the first time, a long-held Democratic goal.

A group of moderate Democrats won the concession, though, that negotiation would only occur for older medications that are no longer on their period of “exclusivity,” when they are protected from competition: after nine years for many drugs and after 13 years for more complex biologic ones.

McMurry-Heath called that concession “progress” but said the measure would still be damaging to pharmaceutical innovation.

“So of course it’s progress, albeit limited, that they realized the impact and damage of price setting and price fixing on the innovation ecosystem,” she said. “That being said, they didn’t back completely away from a mechanism and a process that they know is going to have devastating impacts. They just moved it slightly down the line.”

She argues that the bill does not really allow for “negotiation,” as Democrats argue, but is instead a full-on “price control,” in part because drug companies that walk away from negotiations would be hit with a penalty in the form of an excise tax.

“The whole idea that you can negotiate with a gun to someone’s head is really disturbing,” she said.

Democrats largely dismiss the outcry over concerns about innovation as what drug companies always say when they are worried about their profits diminishing.

In July, House Democrats released a report finding that, from 2016 to last year, the 14 leading pharmaceutical companies spent more on stock buybacks and dividends than they did on research and development.

McMurry-Heath countered that “there’s so many areas of spending within companies that doesn’t get counted in the R&D bucket, but it’s actually incredibly useful and helpful to patients,” pointing specifically to when a larger company invests in a smaller one.

“One of our messages on the Hill has been like, this is not about Big Pharma or small biotech,” she said. “This is about an ecosystem that continually encourages risk-taking, and innovation, and then rapidly scales up that innovation to be able to be disseminated to patients, not just in the U.S., but around the world.”

McMurry-Heath is an immunologist and medical doctor, a shift from BIO’s previous head, Jim Greenwood, who had previously been a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania.

She was the first African American to graduate from Duke University’s Medical Scientist Training Program and says she has tried to bring a social justice focus to her work in science.

She had experience in both the science and policy sides of her current job before coming to BIO, working at the Food and Drug Administration in the Obama administration before going to Johnson & Johnson as head of evidence generation for medical devices.

She also spent time on Capitol Hill earlier in her career, as a health and science aide to former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Her current job is “the amalgamation or accumulation of all of those experiences,” she said.

Outside of juggling drug pricing debates and the COVID-19 response, she spends much of her time with her 9-year-old daughter, as well as on meditation and yoga.

“She loves sports and she loves animals and she loves nature, so we’re usually involved in doing or participating in one of those three areas,” she said of her daughter.

BIO is engaged in a staggered return to at-office work, which could help cut down on the virtual meetings so many organizations have relied on during the pandemic.

“Just keeping a team mobilized and energized when they’re so disconnected from each other has been something that we’ve really been learning how to do as we go,” she said. 

Tags Coronavirus Joe Biden

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