As major banking, energy, technology and retail companies cut ties or scaled back their operations in Russia, executives from several major U.S. pharmaceutical companies said this week they expect to continue to serve the Russian market, defending the need to provide medicines and health care. skincare products to Russians even as the country’s invasion of Ukraine continues.
Some companies have admitted to suspending recruitment of new patients into clinical trials in Russia, a prime location for drug trials outside the United States. At least one company – GlaxoSmithKline – has specifically stated that it does not run ads in Russia at this time.
But Big Pharma’s overall message on Russia so far has been different from that of big companies in other sectors.
“Our focus right now is to try to make sure we don’t leave any patients behind,” Merck CFO Caroline Litchfield said at a conference hosted by investment bank Cowen on Monday, ” so we continue to try to get the products to the people both in our clinical trials, as well as very frankly commercially who are using Merck’s products.
Ukraine and Russia are “important markets,” Litchfield said. They represent 1% of Merck’s business, based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, and collectively represent 6% to 7% of the company’s clinical trial activity. Testing drugs on patients in trials is a key part of developing new therapies and obtaining the regulatory approvals that allow pharmaceutical companies to sell their products.
For now, Merck has “suspended clinical trial enrollment” at new sites in both countries, Litchfield said.
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Johnson & Johnson has also suspended patient enrollment in ongoing trials in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, a company spokesperson confirmed.
Other cases are ongoing – and J&J Chief Financial Officer Joe Wolk said it was “very important” that any Russia-related economic sanctions continue to make exceptions for health products.
“Literally, if our products don’t get to patients in need, people will die or have serious consequences,” Wolk said Tuesday at a Raymond James investor conference, according to a transcript.
About 1% of J&J’s sales come from Russia and Ukraine, Wolk said. Half of the company’s business in Russia comes from pharmaceuticals, he said, and the rest is split between medical devices and consumer health products.
The industry’s leading trade group, PhRMA, said its members “play a vital humanitarian role” and each company assesses its ability to continue operating. “As an industry, we are united in condemning the violence taking place against the people of Ukraine,” spokesman Brian Newell said.
GlaxoSmithKline, a British company with offices in Philadelphia, said “everyone has the right to access healthcare” and that the company will continue to supply its products “to the Russian people, as long as we can”.
But GSK said it would stop “as far as possible, any direct involvement and support for the Russian government and military”. The company “stops all advertising and will not enter into any contracts directly supporting the Russian administration or military,” according to its statement.
As for clinical trials in Russia, these “are continuing uninterrupted at this stage,” a GSK spokesperson told The Inquirer. “We are not currently recruiting new patients or starting new clinical operations.”
Pharmaceutical distributor AmerisourceBergen, headquartered in Conshohocken, announced on Wednesday that it was “stopping any new business initiatives” in Russia. Its World Courier division will continue its services in Russia for nearly 60 clinical trials, as well as the “commercial distribution of certain cancer treatments”.
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“Our hope in sharing this perspective is to articulate the nuanced choice AmerisourceBergen must make to meet the needs of vulnerable patients, support medical innovation, and do our part to fight imperialism,” the group’s chairman said. Robert Mauch in the ad.
Earlier in the week, the distributor was highlighted on a Yale School of Management list of companies still operating in Russia with ‘significant exposure’ – part of a campaign by Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld to bring businesses to shut down or curtail Russian business in order to weaken the economy and Vladimir Putin’s regime.
AmerisourceBergen is now on Sonnenfeld’s list of companies that have “cut Russian operations”, along with more than 300 other companies from all industries. Visa, Shell, Amazon and McDonald’s are just some of the companies that have suspended operations in Russia.
Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University and formerly at the University of Pennsylvania, argues for scientists and doctors to isolate Putin and Russia. In a March 4 editorial for the Cancer Letter, Caplan recommended ending sponsorship or participation in research in Russia and not publishing any medical work by or by Russians.
“Any kind of collaboration with Russia undermines the effort the West is trying to use to stop the war,” Caplan said in an interview. “I think we need to exert extreme pressure to end the horrific violence in Ukraine.”
As for clinical trials, he said, drug companies cancel them for business decisions, “for reasons less noble than war.” If pharmaceutical companies want to supply essential drugs to Russia, Caplan said it would be “better to give them”. According to him, making a profit and “selling is absolutely not acceptable”.
Several biotech executives also launched an open letter on Feb. 26, calling for Russia’s “economic disengagement” from their industry. It has since attracted the support of more than 800 signatories from life sciences companies, investment firms and other groups.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian government called for a boycott of 50 international companies doing business in Russia from March 9, including Pfizer and J&J.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in an interview with Confront the Nation on CBS that the security concerns and pain of invading Russia are “heartbreaking”,
Asked if Pfizer would divest from Russia, Bourla said drugs are generally exempt from trade restrictions, otherwise Russians would be denied care like cancer treatment.
“Clearly we have no plans to invest in Russia” in the future, Bourla said of the program, adding that Pfizer currently has “very little” investment in Russia. Russia accounts for less than half a percent of the company’s revenue, he said.
A company spokesperson did not comment directly on the boycott call. Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies say they are donating medicines and relief funds to Ukraine.
Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in another social media boycott-related postaccused J&J and six other brands of “funding Putin’s propaganda machine” by running ads on Russian state television, at least from March 1.
A J&J spokesperson did not say whether the company was still advertising in Russia.
In times of “humanitarian crisis, access to health products is more important than ever,” the J&J spokesperson said. “We remain committed to providing essential health products to those in need in Ukraine, Russia and the region, abiding by current sanctions and adapting to the rapidly changing situation on the ground.