In recent weeks, investment bankers have pressed health care companies on the front lines of fighting the novel coronavirus, including drug firms developing experimental treatments and medical supply firms, to consider ways that they can profit from the crisis.
The media has mostly focused on individuals who have taken advantage of the market for now-scarce medical and hygiene supplies to hoard masks and hand sanitizer and resell them at higher prices. But the largest voices in the health care industry stand to gain from billions of dollars in emergency spending on the pandemic, as do the bankers and investors who invest in health care companies.
Over the past few weeks, investment bankers have been candid on investor calls and during health care conferences about the opportunity to raise drug prices. In some cases, bankers received sharp rebukes from health care executives; in others, executives joked about using the attention on Covid-19 to dodge public pressure on the opioid crisis.
Gilead Sciences, the company producing remdesivir, the most promising drug to treat Covid-19 symptoms, is one such firm facing investor pressure.
Remdesivir is an antiviral that began development as a treatment for dengue, West Nile virus, and Zika, as well as MERS and SARS. The World Health Organization has said there is “only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy in treating coronavirus symptoms” — namely, remdesivir.
The drug, though developed in partnership with the University of Alabama through a grant from the federal government’s National Institutes of Health, is patented by Gilead Sciences, a major pharmaceutical company based in California. The firm has faced sharp criticism in the past for its pricing practices. It previously charged $84,000 for a yearlong supply of its hepatitis C treatment, which was also developed with government research support. Remdesivir is estimated to produce a one-time revenue of $2.5 billion.
During an investor conference earlier this month, Phil Nadeau, managing director at investment bank Cowen & Co., quizzed Gilead Science executives over whether the firm had planned for a “commercial strategy for remdesivir” or could “create a business out of remdesivir.”
Johanna Mercier, executive vice president of Gilead, noted that the company is currently donating products and “manufacturing at risk and increasing our capacity” to do its best to find a solution to the pandemic. The company at the moment is focused, she said, primarily on “patient access” and “government access” for remdesivir.
“Commercial opportunity,” Mercier added, “might come if this becomes a seasonal disease or stockpiling comes into play, but that’s much later down the line.”
Steven Valiquette, a managing director at Barclays Investment Bank, last week peppered executives from Cardinal Health, a health care distributor of N95 masks, ventilators and pharmaceuticals, on whether the company would raise prices on a range of supplies.
Valiquette asked repeatedly about potential price increases on a variety of products. Could the company, he asked, “offset some of the risk of volume shortages” on the “pricing side”?
Michael Kaufmann, the chief executive of Cardinal Health, said that “so far, we’ve not seen any material price increases that I would say are related to the coronavirus yet.” Cardinal Health, Kaufman said, would weigh a variety of factors when making these decisions, and added that the company is “always going to fight aggressively to make sure that we’re getting after the lowest cost.”
“Are you able to raise the price on some of this to offset what could be some volume shortages such that it all kind of nets out to be fairly consistent as far as your overall profit matrix?” asked Valiquette.
Kaufman responded that price decisions would depend on contracts with providers, though the firm has greater flexibility over some drug sales. “As you have changes on the cost side, you’re able to make some adjustments,” he noted.
The discussion, over conference call, occurred during the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference on March 10. At one point, Valiquette joked that “one positive” about the coronavirus would be a “silver lining” that Cardinal Health may receive “less questions” about opioid-related lawsuits.
Cardinal Health is one of several firms accused of ignoring warnings and flooding pharmacies known as so-called pill mills with shipments of millions of highly addictive painkillers. Kaufmann noted that negotiations for a settlement are ongoing.
Owens & Minor, a health care logistics company that sources and manufactures surgical gowns, N95 masks, and other medical equipment, presented at the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference the following day.
Valiquette, citing the Covid-19 crisis, asked the company whether it could “increase prices on some of the products where there’s greater demand.” Valiquette then chuckled, adding that doing so “is probably not politically all that great in the sort of dynamic,” but said he was “curious to get some thoughts” on whether the firm would consider hiking prices.
The inquiry was sharply rebuked by Owens & Minor chief executive Edward Pesicka. “I think in a crisis like this, our mission is really around serving the customer. And from an integrity standpoint, we have pricing agreements,” Pesicka said. “So we are not going to go out and leverage this and try to ‘jam up’ customers and raise prices to have short-term benefit.”
AmerisourceBergen, another health care distributor that supplies similar products to Cardinal Health, which is also a defendant in the multistate opioid litigation, faced similar questions from Valiquette at the Barclays event.
Steve Collis, president and chief executive of AmerisourceBergen, noted that his company has been actively involved in efforts to push back against political demands to limit the price of pharmaceutical products.
Collis said that he was recently at a dinner with other pharmaceutical firms involved with developing “vaccines for the coronavirus” and was reminded that the U.S. firms, operating under limited drug price intervention, were among the industry leaders — a claim that has been disputed by experts who note that lack of regulation in the drug industry has led to few investments in viral treatments, which are seen as less lucrative. Leading firms developing a vaccine for Covid-19 are based in Germany, China, and Japan, countries with high levels of government influence in the pharmaceutical industry.
AmerisourceBergen, Collis continued, has been “very active with key stakeholders in D.C., and our priority is to educate policymakers about the impact of policy changes,” with a focus on “rational and responsible discussion about drug pricing.”
Later in the conversation, Valiquette asked AmerisourceBergen about the opioid litigation. The lawsuits could cost as much as $150 billion among the various pharmaceutical and drug distributor defendants. Purdue Pharma, one of the firms targeted with the opioid litigation, has already pursued bankruptcy protection in response to the lawsuit threat.
“We can’t say too much,” Collis responded. But the executive hinted that his company is using its crucial role in responding to the pandemic crisis as leverage in the settlement negotiations. “I would say that this crisis, the coronavirus crisis, actually highlights a lot of what we’ve been saying, how important it is for us to be very strong financial companies and to have strong cash flow ability to invest in our business and to continue to grow our business and our relationship with our customers,” Collis said.
The hope that the coronavirus will benefit firms involved in the opioid crisis has already materialized in some ways. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week that her lawsuit against opioid firms and distributors, including Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, set to begin on March 20, would be delayed over coronavirus concerns.
Market pressure has encouraged large health care firms to spend billions of dollars on stock buybacks and lobbying, rather than research and development. Barclays declined to comment, and Cowen & Co. did not respond to a request for comment.
The fallout over the coronavirus could pose potential risks for for-profit health care operators. In Spain, the government seized control of private health care providers, including privately run hospitals, to manage the demand for treatment for patients with Covid-19.
But pharmaceutical interests in the U.S. have a large degree of political power. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar previously served as president of the U.S. division of drug giant Eli Lilly and on the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug lobby group.
During a congressional hearing last month, Azar rejected the notion that any vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 should be set at an affordable price. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest,” said Azar. “The priority is to get vaccines and therapeutics. Price controls won’t get us there.”
The initial $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill passed in early March to provide financial support for research into vaccines and other drug treatments contained a provision that prevents the government from delaying the introduction of any new pharmaceutical to address the crisis over affordability concerns. The legislative text was shaped, according to reports, by industry lobbyists.
“Notwithstanding the pressure they may feel from the markets, corporate CEOs have large amounts of discretion and in this case, they should be very mindful of price gouging, they’re going to be facing a lot more than reputational hits,” said Robert Weissman, president of public interest watchdog Public Citizen, in an interview with The Intercept.
“There will be a backlash that will both prevent their profiteering, but also may push to more structural limitations on their monopolies and authority moving forward,” Weissman said.
Weissman’s group supports an effort led by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who has called on the government to invoke the Defense Production Act to scale up domestic manufacturing of health care supplies.
There are other steps the government can take, Weissman added, to prevent price gouging.
“The Gilead product is patent-protected and monopoly-protected, but the government has a big claim over that product because of the investment it’s made,” said Weissman.
“The government has special authority to have generic competition for products it helped fund and prevent nonexclusive licensing for products it helped fund,” Weissman continued. “Even for products that have no connection to government funding, the government has the ability to force licensing for generic competition for its own acquisition and purchases.”
Drug companies often eschew vaccine development because of the limited profit potential for a one-time treatment. Testing kit companies and other medical supply firms have few market incentives for domestic production, especially scaling up an entire factory for short-term use. Instead, Levin and Weissman have argued, the government should take direct control of producing the necessary medical supplies and generic drug production.
Last Friday, Levin circulated a letter signed by other House Democrats that called for the government to take charge in producing ventilators, N95 respirators, and other critical supplies facing shortages.
The once inconceivable policy was endorsed on Wednesday when Trump unveiled a plan to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private firms to produce needed supplies during the crisis. The law, notably, allows the president to set a price ceiling for critical goods used in an emergency.