PhRMA and BIO self-image: Downtrodden and besieged

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky February 25, 2008
Biopolitical Times
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It's always odd when the privileged and powerful lay claim to the status of victimhood. An example of this unattractive phenomenon is displayed on the cover of the latest issue of The Journal of Life Sciences, shown here.

This slim bimonthly publication, launched last year, carries a mix of business and lifestyle features for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. The February/March issue, for example, includes a lavishly illustrated story about San Diego golf courses as venues for high-powered bioscience deals, as well as assorted news on the industry's financial and policy prospects.

Though it has the look of an independent magazine, TJOLS is a project of venture capital firm Burrill & Company and the California Healthcare Institute (CHI), a lobbying and trade group. Its advisory board is made up of academic science heavyweights and bioscience financiers and CEOs, including five current or former members of the California stem cell program's board.

The current issue’s cover story - the one illustrated by the governmental jackboot crushing a scientist - examines bills and hearings of concern to Big PhRMA and Big BIO in the current Congressional session. On the sub-textual level, it's a fascinating read. Suffused with an anxious tone and accompanied by another strikingly dire image (researchers bound and gagged in red tape), it basically concedes that the bio-industrial complex doesn't have much to worry about from the current crop of lawmakers.

Last year's FDA reform bill, which takes effect this year, is judged benign. "We were worried that, in the wake of Vioxx, there would be draconian safety provisions, but we avoided that," comments an "optimistic" James Greenwood, BIO CEO and former Republican Congress member from Pennsylvania. (The Vioxx scandal, in which Merck's ibuprofen alternative caused at least 40,000 deaths from premature heart attacks and strokes, led to expectations of a meaningful FDA overhaul. But that's not what happened. As independent analyst Merrill Goozner put it, "Commercial interests still trump safety concerns at America's drug oversight body.")

Greenwood and other industry commentators go on to note additional provisions in the legislation that will "bolster innovation" and remove "burdens" on product development.

So the regulatory climate is looking pretty darn comfy. And the pharmaceutical industry continues to be one of the most profitable in the world – the second highest in the US in 2007. But the captains of bioscience still reserve the right to whine: In their introductory publishers' comment, Steven Burrill and CHI head David Gollaher complain that "anxiety about a government `takeover' of American medicine is not merely political posturing."