Former Sanofi head Viehbacher to become Biogen CEO

Biogen Hillerød, Denmark

Six months after Biogen began its search for new leadership, the biotech has now named former Sanofi chief executive Christopher Viehbacher as Michel Vounatsos’ replacement, effective from 14th November. Viehbacher led Sanofi between 2008 and 2014 and has decades of experience with both large pharmaceutical companies and small biotechs. A veritable ‘industry veteran’, he spent 20 years at GSK before Sanofi, where he helped reshape the company’s drug portfolio. Whilst at Sanofi, 62-year-old Viehbacher closed its $20-billion acquisition of rare disease specialist Genzyme, and also broadened an alliance with Regeneron – yielding the top-selling anti-inflammatory drug Dupixent. However, in 2014 Sanofi fired Viehbacher over a boardroom fight regarding his management. Following that, Viehbacher was chairman of the drug-hunting start-up Boston Pharmaceuticals and managed the healthcare investment firm Gurnet Point Capital, which has created and invested in several biotechs. Yet, his recent immersion in investment, rather than industry, has created a scepticism over this new appointment. Long-term Biogen board chairman, Stelios Papadopoulos, nevertheless said: “Chris is the rare pharma executive who has a keen understanding of the complexities involved in running a multibillion-dollar global pharma business, as well as a deep appreciation for the value of innovation.” Biogen’s shares rose 2.4% to $289.01 in pre-market trading following the announcement. Last year, Biogen won controversial FDA approval of Aduhelm, billed as the first drug to treat Alzheimer’s underlying cause. Sales were weak to begin with – priced at $56,000, and the company finding convincing doctors and insurance companies of its effectiveness to be difficult – when the US’ Medicare limited its coverage only to clinical trials. This led to a period of lay-offs and its plans for Vounatsos (who had led Biogen since 2017) to step down as CEO. However, Viehbacher comes on board following a surprising clinical trial success for lecanemab, another Alzheimer’s drug Biogen is developing, in partnership with Eisai. A similar treatment to Aduhelm, it is already under FDA review for accelerated approval and is hoped to turn Biogen’s fortunes around.