Biopharma CEOs call for action on systemic racism—across America and in their own ranks

Merck CEO Ken Frazier

After the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Americans have taken to the streets to call out racial inequalities, police violence and systemic racism. 

But even those not on the ground as protests play out nationwide are speaking out, sometimes for the first time. Biopharma's leaders are no different. Many of the industry's leaders are reaching out to their employees and the public to get their views on record. 

Merck CEO Ken Frazier—Big Pharma's only African American CEO—got the conversation started with a CNBC interview Monday morning. He said Floyd's treatment by police was "clearly inhumane" and that his own life was put on a "different trajectory" because he was bused to a predominately white high school, which helped close the "opportunity gap." He called on businesses to tackle those opportunity gaps that still exist for African Americans today.

Since then, other biopharma leaders have started speaking up about race and injustice.

Amgen CEO Robert Bradway wrote to colleagues on Sunday that "equal justice and equal opportunity may be our ideals, but they are not yet our reality." Bradway has been discussing the issues with colleagues, and he wrote that he's been "heartbroken ... and struck by how close to home these issues really are."

"Many of our colleagues feel unable to fulfill their full potential at Amgen and feel unsafe in their neighborhoods solely because of the color of their skin," Bradway wrote. "That’s unacceptable to me and it must change."

Vertex CEO​​​​​ Reshma 

Vertex CEO Reshma Kewalramani said in a statement it's "not enough to be silently non-racist." It's critical to "use our voices to speak loudly against racism and injustice wherever we see it."

"More than ever, we need each other right now," she said. "We need each other’s empathy, compassion and a listening ear. We need to take personal and collective action to recognize the role each of us plays in a system that continues to hold down some for the benefit of others, and work to rebuild it so that our nation’s promise of equality and justice for all can finally ring true.” 

As a white man, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky wrote that he acknowledges the "limits of my own life experience and listen to those who have faced systemic injustice since the day they were born." 

Over the weekend, Gorsky discussed the issues with black colleagues and friends, and he said the stories they shared "landed like a punch to the gut." One father drives behind his teenage daughter when she jogs, he wrote, afraid for her safety. J&J pledged $10 million over three years to fighting racism. 

Genentech CEO Alexander Hardy wrote that the "consequences of discrimination are far-reaching and acutely evident in every aspect of our lives." He pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected African Americans.

"This harrowing time in our country is spurring powerful conversations within our company," Hardy added. "Since reaching out to the Genentech community at the end of last week on this critical issue, I have received more responses than ever from employees sharing their personal stories, expressing their profound hurt and anger, and voicing their desire to help drive change."

Biogen CEO Michel

In an email to colleagues, Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos wrote that “horrific deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor” have again outlined “divisions and inequities that persist within our communities.” The company is encouraging an “open and inclusive dialogue," and is "actively working to reduce bias in our workplaces and build inclusive communities,” he wrote.

“Our commitment to equality and justice defines us as an organization and we must remain steadfast to these values always," Vounatsos said.

On LinkedIn, Bayer’s CEO Werner Baumann wrote that racism is “unacceptable in our society and unacceptable at Bayer.” The recent race-related violence goes "squarely against the very essence of our company culture that is inclusive of diverse people of all backgrounds,” he added. 

RELATED: With protests raging, Merck CEO Frazier urges businesses to help bridge the racial equity gap

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said it's a "tragedy" race violence and injustice are still a part of U.S. life. As the company's leader, plus as a father "who wants to see my own kids grow up in a world that embraces diversity in every way, I want to clearly say that Black Lives Matter," Narasimhan wrote on LinkedIn.

Gilead CEO Dan O'Day

Gilead CEO Dan O'Day said it's a time of "deep pain and sadness." Racism, injustice and discrimination are "all too real in our society today," he added. The issues affect Gilead employees and others, and O'Day said "we all have the responsibility to make things better."

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks said in a statement it's "no longer enough to express our empathy and outrage" and that the U.S. is "crying out for real change." The company knows "solutions to complex problems require uncomfortable conversations," and Lilly is "committed to get into this discussion, to listen, engage and then partner with elected officials, community leaders and organizations to advocate for action," Ricks said.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla posted a letter he wrote to U.S.-based Pfizer colleagues on LinkedIn, with a note that he was sharing it on the platform “as a call to action for all Pfizer partners, suppliers and other stakeholders to stand with us and speak up against racial discrimination and injustice.”

The original letter said, in part: “As our equity value says ‘Every person deserves to be seen, heard and cared for.’ That’s a fundamental truth that defines who we are as a company—and who we are as human beings. At this moment in time, we have an opportunity to lead candid and honest conversations on race that will allow for greater understanding and real change."

GlaxoSmithKline pointed to Merck CEO Frazier’s interview on CNBC in a LinkedIn post, calling it “powerful” and encouraging others to listen and reflect. Last week, GSK's president of U.S. pharmaceuticals, Maya Martinez-Davis, wrote on LinkedIn talking, in part, about the response of GSK employees.

“I’m filled with hope to see the comments and the outreach shared by so many of my colleagues and I’ve reached back to them to say that they are not alone. That we stand with them against racism and injustice of any type, anywhere,” she said.

In an open letter to employees Sunday, Mallinckrodt CEO Mark Trudeau said he was "horrified" by the recent deaths and encouraged coworkers to check in on one another during a troubling time. 

"I want to reemphasize that inclusion and diversity are at the core of who we are as a company, and that we are strengthened by the varied identities, experiences, cultures and views of our great employees," he said. "We are committed to fostering a safe and welcoming work environment where each employee can come to work as their full-self, deserving of respect and dignity."

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said it's the company's responsibility "to keep working to close opportunity gaps and foster an inclusive and diverse work environment." The drugmaker "stands against racism, intolerance and discrimination," he wrote on LinkedIn, adding that he found Frazier's remarks "inspiring."

"Together and united, I know we will make a difference," Hudson added.

Novo Nordisk president Doug Langa issued a statement on LinkedIn that was repeated across Novo social media on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Novo Nordisk treats everyone with respect, he said. Langa added that the recent events and calls for justice over racial inequalities reinforce the “need to be here and stand united for each other and our communities as human beings.”

Astrazenca CEO Pascal Soriot encouraged employees to “speak up and address bias wherever we see it—whether conscious or unconscious” in an online statement. He said AZ has made progress in building an inclusive and diverse culture, but “we can do more." Soriot ended the note by asking employees to join him “in making a collective contribution to building a better society.”

Regeneron executives CEO Len Schleifer and CSO George Yancopoulos sent a letter to employees that said like many others, they were “sickened and saddened” by the recent U.S. events. Regeneron recognizes the need for more work to effect change and will keep “working hard to demonstrate the power to effect change,” they said. The two ended the letter by directing employees and their families facing physical and mental health stress with a link to Regeneron programs and services designed to help.

A spokesperson added via email, “Regeneron donates over $3 million annually to outreach and equity programs that help support access to STEM for underprivileged youth, which we think is a key part of leveling the playing field.”