Drug Pricing Not Discussed at White House Meeting of Biotech Execs and NIH

Jackie Syrop

The White House meeting on May 8, 2017, between top Trump administration officials and biotech executives, university leaders, academic healthcare leaders, and the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not include a discussion of drug pricing even though the issue was expected to be raised by administration officials.

The White House meeting, organized to discuss the importance of basic biomedical research to improving human health and fueling economic growth, included executives from Celgene, Regeneron, and Vertex. The original agenda described the meeting as a chance for “private sector and thought leaders to describe their institution and its connection to federal funding,” after the Trump administration proposed cutting $1.23 billion from the NIH budget in fiscal 2017 and $5.8 billion next year—about an 18% reduction.

Most of the cuts would have come from research grants. Trump said in the early days of his administration that the drug industry is “getting away with murder” because of the prices it charges for drugs.

The meeting’s main event was attended by Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, HHS Secretary Tom Price, and, for a period of time, Vice President Mike Pence. President Trump did not attend the 2-hour meeting, but invited participants to the Oval Office following it.

The topic of drug pricing did not appear to have been discussed, according to NIH director Francis Collins. “There’s all kinds of elephants, and the room is crowded with them, I suppose, but that one didn’t get much attention,” he said in a post-meeting interview. The main focus of the meeting was the case for support of biomedicine in America, Collins said, how all the parts fit together in order for discoveries, advances, and disease cures to continue to happen at an accelerated pace.

Collins reported that 1 meeting attendee said that for the first time her postdoctoral fellows from China, who were training in the United States, were declining to stay in the country after they finished, instead of returning to China. “This can’t be a good thing for our future if we’re trying to build a future that’s based upon talent,” Collins said. “A lot of the talent that we take for granted no longer comes so easily or stays once they’ve been trained.” In addition to reports of a negative impact on biomedical startups and research as a result of the proposed research cuts, Collins said that young scientists are having a hard time funding their work. “We know we’re not funding a lot of good science and we’re discouraging some young investigators who ultimately may decide to give up,” he concluded.

The biotech CEOs also focused on the case for government funding of basic scientific research, each stating unequivocally that they count on the NIH to fund basic science as their shareholders would never allow the companies to fund that type of science. The industry leaders focused on the need to ensure that US dominance in biomedical research continues, and discussed scientific opportunities including research in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injury.