Big Pharma largely keeps mum on Trump travel ban, but many biotech execs are vocal

Pharma companies are in the crosshairs on drug pricing, no question. President Donald Trump, after all, has said the industry is "getting away with murder" and he has publicly vowed to "do something" about drug prices. He's proposed competitive bidding and Medicare price negotiation as two possibilities.

So, perhaps it's no surprise that few drugmakers wanted to comment on Trump's executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. As universities that team up with pharma on research lamented the ban, and many Silicon Valley executives stepped forward (some, like Uber, under protest), most of pharma stayed on the sidelines.

Biotech executives, meanwhile, were more willing to air their criticism—and to publicly promise aid to employees who might face problems because of the ban. Regeneron, for instance, said CEO Len Schleifer and R&D chief George Yancopoulos told staffers the company would marshal its resources to help workers and their family members deal with the executive order.

"Regeneron is here to assist and support any employees who believe they or their families may be impacted by this order," the statement said, adding that the company could offer "security and support services for international travelers." Employees were also told they aren't obligated to travel if the ban makes them nervous.

Allergan CEO Brent Saunders was the first drug industry executive to criticize the travel ban. On Twitter Sunday morning, Saunders put Allergan on the record. “Oppose any policy that puts limitations on our ability to attract the best & diverse talent,” he wrote.

Like Regeneron, Merck said Monday morning that it is already working to identify staffers who might need help. "We are actively reaching out to employees who may be affected by the executive order to provide legal advice and other assistance,” the company said.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts-based biotech Vertex Pharmaceuticals had this to say, in a tweet by TheStreet's Adam Feuerstein.

In responses to FiercePharma, AbbVie and Pfizer both said they had “nothing to add” to the discussion. Generics maker Teva Pharmaceutical also had no comment. The pharma industry association PhRMA and its biotech counterpart BIO said they had no response to make either. A variety of other pharma and biotech companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, had not responded by press time.

In an afternoon statement, an Eli Lilly spokesperson said the "situation surrounding the executive order on immigration remains very fluid." The company is "closely monitoring developments to determine whether our employees and their ability to travel freely will be affected.”

Novartis, for its part, said Monday afternoon that none of its employees had so far run into trouble because of the executive order. "Upholding our steadfast commitment to associates of all nationalities and religions is core to our values as we work to address society’s most pressing healthcare challenges," the company said in an emailed statement, adding, "We continue to assess and evaluate any potential impact on our associates."

GlaxoSmithKline said it “probably will not have anything to say on this today but will let you know of any updates.”

Likewise, in addition to highlighting its offer to help employees, Regeneron's missive included a general statement about its diverse workforce. The company "is made up of people from more than 100 countries, a multitude of faiths and an even greater number of perspectives," the notice read. "We believe in the value of this diversity, and in the contributions that immigrants from all over the world have made to building our company and our home country."

Other biotech CEOs seemed more willing to take issue with the ban. Endpoints News surveyed its readers, and 87% of the 1,200 responders opposed the ban, and three out of four felt the ban would affect the industry directly.

"We are one of many companies made up of a large percentage of immigrant staff, highly talented and trained,” Xencor CEO Bassil Dahiyat told the site. “We cease to function without immigrants, period. Some now cannot leave the country for fear of being shut out.”

He went on to add a personal note: “[M]y parents immigrated from a country adjacent to those banned. Are they next?”

Meanwhile, Bluebird Bio CEO Nick Leschly told TheStreet that he and his company “oppose any policies that inhibit our ability to attract and retain the best and brightest scientific and business minds from all over the world.”

“Disease knows no boundaries,” Leschly noted.

When asked about the travel restrictions, Ovid CEO Jeremy Levin—a Bristol-Myers Squibb vet and former Teva chief—told CNBC, “[I]t threatens not just [the] basic core of America as [a] leading free nation; it threatens our supremacy in technology development.”

But several responses to Saunders’ tweet pointed up the difficulty of making the open-borders, globalization argument at a time when President Trump’s stated credo is “America First.” Here are a couple:


In recent years, life sciences companies have complained of a “skills mismatch” between the science jobs they have open and the employees trained to do them. The industry has shifted to biologic drugs and away from small-molecule research, which leaves chemists and others out in the cold. As Big Data and genomics become more and more important to drug research and development, companies need more scientists who can straddle the info-technology divide.

But then again, Big Pharma and Big Biotech have restructured R&D and laid off thousands of workers in recent years, leaving many scientists out of work, and some industry-watchers say biopharma needs to do more to retrain displaced scientists for the jobs companies do need to fill.

Editor's note: This story was updated with comments from Eli Lilly, Novartis and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.