Pharma news highlights: March

Ed Silverman


(Continued from “Pharma news highlights: January”)

Another busy month just ended and so here are a few highlights that may help put the always fast-paced pharmaceutical industry in focus. March began with a bit of controversy when Sanofi CEO Chris Viehbacher was quoted at an industry conference saying that the best researchers want to work at biotechs and that big pharma does not know how to innovate. One charmer: “If you want to work with the best people, you’re going to have to go outside your own company and work with those people.” Although he may have been well-intentioned and attempted to be candid in response to questions, his statements set off a furious debate about big pharma, innovation and CEO leadership, since his remarks, basically, were interpreted by some as a slap in the face to his own scientists. Around the same time, Express Scripts CEO George Paz told Wall Street analysts, one of whom asked about his pharmacy network, that “Nexium is Nexium, Lipitor is Lipitor, drugs are drugs and it shouldn’t matter that much who’s counting to 30.” The comment was similarly seen as a tone-deaf remark that might only alienate his own pharmacists. At a time when every CEO tries to squeeze as much productivity as they can from employees, their statements can undo that proposition by undermining morale.

Meanwhile, Pfizer acknowledged a setback with its groundbreaking ‘clinical-trial-in-a-box,’ which is the first trial to allow patients to participate from home by using computers and smart phones instead of going to a clinic or doctor’s office. The idea is to create a model for saving money that will rely on technology to more easily recruit patients and monitor their progress. But even though the drugmaker drove thousands of hits to the web site for the trial, which is studying the Detrol overactive bladder med, there were bumps. The big issue was getting enough patients to enroll, which underscores the ongoing challenges of using social media as the dominant tool for patient recruitment.


“The big issue was getting enough patients to enroll, which underscores the ongoing challenges of using social media as the dominant tool for patient recruitment.”


Another development that generated considerable attention was a US lawsuit filed by several union health plans against eight large drugmakers. The charge was that, rather than save consumers money, prescription drug coupons illegally subsidize insurance co-payments for brand-name medicines and can actually increase health insurance premiums. And this can cause consumers to hit benefit caps or lose coverage altogether. The lawsuit reflects an ongoing, behind-the-scenes battle over the cost of medicines. Insurers and pharmacy benefit managers have various methods at their disposal to encourage the use of lower-cost generics. The coupons can lower co-payments for brand-name drugs to about the same cost as a generic, or simply offer a flat discount. But this means that employers and unions offering drug coverage can pay more when coupons are used and, therefore, charge that the coupons amount to bribery. Just the same, consumers like them.

One of the more complicated items to make the news was the latest in a series of US court rulings that continued to follow the dictates established last year by the US Supreme Court. In a closely watched ruling, the highest court in the land decided that generic drugmakers are not required to strengthen labeling even when alerted to side effects. A pair of lawsuits claimed labeling changes could have been made under state law and without FDA approval. The 5-to-4 decision, in which generic drugmakers won the argument that federal law preempts state law, set off a debate about patient safety. Currently, US regulations say that generic drugmakers cannot update labeling, even if they become aware of a potential risk not mentioned in the labeling. Brand-name drugmakers, however, can update warnings on their labeling before obtaining FDA approval to do so. And in recent months, other US courts have relied on the Supreme Court decision to reach the same conclusion, prompting one US Senator to vow to introduce legislation to require generic drugmakers to update their labels when they become aware of side effects.

Another story that generated some amusement was the decision by Abbott Laboratories, which is splitting into two companies, to name the research-pharma entity Abbvie. The other operation, which will focus on devices, diagnostics, nutritionals and, outside the US, branded generics, will keep the Abbott name. But where did Abbvie come from? Using a pretzel-like logic, the Abbott team settled on this nomenclature because it combines Abb with a reference, of sorts, to the Latin root “vi,” which means life. “The ‘vie’ calls attention to the vital work the company will continue to advance to improve the lives of people around the world,” declared Abbott executive vice president Richard Gonzalez, who will head Abbvie. The move, however, was disparaged by some who claimed the reference was a bit tortured and reflected a lack of imagination. An unscientific poll among readers on the Pharmalot web site found that 77 percent of 637 voters disapproved. “Hideous, clumsy and contrived,” wrote one voter.


“Another story that generated some amusement was the decision by Abbott Laboratories, which is splitting into two companies, to name the research-pharma entity Abbvie.”


And in yet another instance in which the virtues of social media were debated, a Janssen UK unit of Johnson &amp, Johnson closed its Facebook page for psoriasis. Why? There were of a growing number of comments that had to be removed because specific drugs were mentioned or, in some cases, offensive language was used. The move came less than a year after Facebook no longer allowed drugmakers to disable posted comments, prompting a debate about the extent to which the pharmaceutical industry would continue to manage Facebook pages.

The next ‘Pharma news highlights’ can be viewed here.

About the author:

Ed Silverman is a prize-winning journalist who has covered the pharmaceutical industry for the past 16 years. In addition to editing Pharmalot, he is currently an editor-at-large for Med Ad News and R&amp,D Directions.

Previously, he was a bureau chief for The Pink Sheet, the venerable industry newsletter, and a contributor to its sister publication, In Vivo magazine. Before that, Silverman worked as a business writer for The Star-Ledger of New Jersey, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers, where he conceived and launched Pharmalot. During his 13-year tenure, he closely followed a variety of topics of concern to those who work for, and with, drug makers – drug development, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory oversight, safety and pricing controversies, and marketing issues.

Prior to joining The Star-Ledger, Silverman spent six years at New York Newsday and previously worked at Investor’s Business Daily, among other newspapers. He has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Binghamton University. Tethered to his laptop and Blackberry, Silverman lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife, three children, a sizeable labrador retriever and a sneaky beagle.

What was your top pharma story from March?