FiercePharmaPolitics—Gilead CEO sees COVID-19 changing the drug pricing conversation

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The drug industry hasn't faced nearly as much negative rhetoric on drug pricing as expected this year. (Pixabay)

Welcome to the FiercePharma political roundup, where each Monday we’ll highlight developments in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that could affect drug pricing and how drugmakers operate.

With less than six months to go until the U.S. elections, the pharma industry finds itself in a different position than expected at the start of the year.

While many predicted a tense year as candidates went on the attack, the pandemic has taken the spotlight. And instead of being an easy target, pharma companies have found a chance to shine. 

On Gilead Sciences' first-quarter conference call, Mizuho analyst Salim Syed pointed out that rhetoric around pharmaceuticals and drug pricing has been “pretty negative” in recent years. So, the analyst wondered aloud whether that has changed as Gilead and other drugmakers charge forward with potential COVID-19 therapies. 

For “innovative, research-based companies,” Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day believes the pandemic will help. O'Day told Syed he thinks the public will recognize the industry’s “ability to solve a human crisis like this, because of the decades of investment,” he said. Already, he added, the “tone is different in Washington."

RELATED: Gilead's remdesivir scores emergency FDA nod in COVID-19 days after big data reveal

Of course, pricing scrutiny won’t go away completely, O’Day predicts. But as the debate plays out, he sees it happening in a way “where we can have an appreciation for the innovation the industry brings.” 

Sunday night, days after O'Day's conference call remarks, President Donald Trump praised several pharma companies by name. At a Fox News virtual town hall on the pandemic, Trump—who's expressed vaccine skepticism in the past—said "we have to get a vaccine" for COVID-19.

"Whoever gets it, I’m going to be the best fan in it," he told hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, according to transcript service Rev. "I want it. I need the vaccine. We need, this country needs the vaccine."

Gilead itself has scored an early COVID-19 win with the FDA's emergency authorization for remdesivir. No stranger to pricing controversy, the company has pledged to donate its entire existing supply, though it hasn't said what happens when that cache is depleted.

The donation promise didn't satisfy former Labor Department Secretary Robert Reich, who wrote on Twitter that the drug was developed in part with taxpayer money. Big Pharma is again "set to profit on the taxpayer's dime," he wrote, prompting a range of supportive and critical replies.

RELATED: One COVID-19 opportunity for pharma? A chance to bolster its reputation, Lilly CEO says 

O'Day isn't alone in thinking the drug industry's image could gain from the crisis. On Eli Lilly’s first-quarter call, CEO David Ricks said the biopharma industry has a “once in a generation opportunity to reset" its reputation.

In response to the pandemic, dozens of drugmakers have started working on new drugs and vaccines, while many are also testing whether existing medicines might be able to fight the infection. 

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