Pfizer is halting investment in Russia but not ending its business there. Should drugmakers pull out altogether?

As a flood of major corporations from the West flee Russia in protest of its invasion of Ukraine, there is a glaring lack of participation from the pharmaceutical industry.

On Wednesday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said that while his company is planning no further investment in the country, Pfizer is not planning a total stoppage of business with Russia.

“How can you say I’m not going to send the cancer medicines to Russia because of what they did?” Bourla asked on Face the Nation.

Pfizer manufactures some treatments in Russia but does not export them, Bourla said. He added that less than half a percentage point of Pfizer's total business comes from the country.

As giants such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Samsung and Coca-Cola have made high-profile exits from Russia, some are asking why pharma isn’t following suit.

Pharma and healthcare companies point out that because they provide lifesaving medicines, they are exempt from sanctions that have been imposed by the United States and Europe.

“We have an important purpose which is why at this time we continue to serve people in all countries in which we operate who depend on us for essential products, some life-sustaining,” Abbott spokesman Scott Stoffel told KHN.

Two weeks ago, dozens of chief executives from venture capital firms and biotech companies—including BioMarin, Nkarta, Rubius and Blueprint—signed a letter calling Russia’s invasion a “barbarous act” and urging others in the industry to “cease involvement in Russian companies,” reject new funds from Russia and end collaboration and service agreements. The executives however stopped short of calling on companies to halt supplies of food and medicine.

The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations—which represents virtually every major pharma company in Europe and beyond—has declared that medical products need to continue to be supplied Ukraine and Russia.

“Our first priority is to ensure that medicines reach the patients that need them in Ukraine, in the neighboring EU member states, in Russia and in other countries where access to medicines may be negatively impacted,” the EFPIA wrote.

Many of the companies under the EFPIA umbrella—most notably Sanofi, Roche and Novo Nordisk—have condemned the invasion and are donating supplies to Ukraine. Abbott has provided $2 million in support to Ukraine. Pfizer has chipped in $1 million.

But no major pharma company has announced it would close down manufacturing operations in Russia or halt sales of medicines to the country.

GlaxoSmithKline has halted advertising in Russia and pledged to not “enter into any contracts that directly support the Russian administration or military.”

Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who is has compiled a list of more than 300 companies that have reduced operations in Russia, believes that pharma companies need to follow suit and are in danger of being viewed as on the wrong side of history.

“If we continue to make life palatable for (Russians), then we are continuing to support the regime,” Sonnenfeld told KHN. “These drug companies will be seen as complicit with the most vicious operation on the planet. Instead of protecting life, they are going to be seen as destroying life.”

Editor's Note: Article previously stated that GlaxoSmithKline has closed offices in Russia. But that is not the case. The company has closed offices in Ukraine.