Working For The Enemy: Biotech Hires Black Social Justice Advocate To Lobby For Profitable Pricing For COVID-19 Drugs

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Written by Ann Brown
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Working for the enemy: the 1,000-member Biotechnology Innovation Organization trade group has hired a Black social justice advocate to lobby for profitable pricing for covid-19 drugs. Image: mmg

The world’s largest science and public advocacy organization, Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), has a new chief lobbyist.

Social justice advocate, physician and molecular immunologist Michelle McMurry-Heath is the organization’s new president and CEO, succeeding former Republican congressman Rep. Jim Greenwood, who led the organization since 2005. 

She’ll be heading up the world’s largest biotech trade association, whose members include companies that make pharmaceutical drugs, biofuels, industrial enzymes, and genetically modified crops.

At age 50, McMurry-Heath is as different from her predecessor as one could imagine, STAT reported. She’s “a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, a former official at the Food and Drug Administration, and the first Black person to graduate with an M.D.-Ph.d. from Duke University.”

She is also the first woman and African American to lead BIO, a 1,000-member organization that lobbies on behalf of companies providing services or products to biotechnology companies including drug, diagnostics, and agriculture industries.

Members pay flat fees annually for BIO’s services based on their number of employees, ranging from $3,500 to $21,000. 

McMurry-Heath is a major first in the industry. In January, BIO published its first “Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry” report. It found that 11 percent of companies surveyed had non-white CEOs, 17 percent had diversity and inclusion programs in place, and 16 percent had women CEOs, Pharmaceutical Commerce reported.

McMurry-Heath says she will fight for what is fair and ethical for patients. But will BIO’s 1,000 members listen? 

In essence, McMurry-Heath will be responsible for managing the reputations of companies from Moderna and Merck to Monsanto. It would seem to be a precarious walk for McMurry-Heath, who will have to lobby in her new role for profitable pricing for covid-19 drugs while trying to promote social justice.

Despite the challenges, McMurry-Heath said she wants to change the conversation in biotech. “Science is the social justice issue of our age,” she said. “Making sure that knowledge gets out to the people who need it — that, to me, is a justice issue.”

McMurry-Heath wants to bring a human touch to science and biotech. When discussing drug policy, she spoke of how biotechnology companies changed her life. Her first husband suffered from cystic fibrosis, a disease that has changed drastically due to biotech innovation and drugs. Her daughter, whom she described as the light of her life, was born through fertility treatments.

“(McMurry-Heath) is the right person for this job at the right time,” said Ellen Sigal, chairwoman and founder of the patient advocacy group Friends of Cancer Research, in a STAT interview. “She won’t be afraid to take on some of the issues people are terrified of, like value and pricing.”

Even with her social justice leaning, McMurry-Heath will deal with issues such as having Medicare negotiate drug prices, letting the government seize drug patents to make them available, or outright price controls, STAT reported. This won’t be anything new for McMurry-Heath. For nearly six years she headed up regulatory affairs at drug and device giant Johnson & Johnson. In that role she stresses that part of the fallout against biotech firms has been that people don’t understand the importance of the work they do.

“A lot of policymakers have unfortunately played political football with our industry,” McMurry-Heath said. “Scientists aren’t the best at telling their stories. I’ll give it to them: We were sitting ducks in many ways.”

Many in the industry are looking for McMurry-Heath to change the public image of the biotech industry as its new face and voice.

“McMurry-Heath is taking on the role at a time when the covid-19 pandemic has focused the world’s attention on the biopharma industry, and the public is hungry for leaders who can speak about science and medicine with credibility, empathy, and authenticity,” BioCentury reported. 

Harvard-educated, McMurry-Heath was the first African American to graduate from the Duke Medical Scientist Training Program. She served as the founding director of the Aspen Institute’s Health Biomedical Science and Society Policy Program, which focused on broadening access to personalized medicine and bolstering international preparedness for pandemic disease threats.

“As these clarifying times have shown, society will rise or fall on the ingenuity of our scientists, the vibrancy of our innovative ecosystem, and the personal courage of the men and women working day and night to bring cures to patients, food to tables and relief to our environment,” McMurry-Heath said in a press statement. “I want scientists, clinicians, and innovators to hold their heads high knowing they are addressing the most important issues we face today. BIO represents these everyday heroes and sheroes, and I couldn’t be prouder for this opportunity to support their work and shout their message from the rooftop.”

McMurry-Heath’s resume includes working at Johnson & Johnson, where her last title was vice president of external innovation and global leader for regulatory science. McMurry-Heath also served on the Obama administration’s science transition team. She was next appointed to a scientific leadership role at the FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health from 2010 to 2014. 

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McMurry-Heath also served as a science and technology policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar and led health and science policy on Capitol Hill for Sen. Joe Lieberman, drafting legislation to protect the country from biological attacks. Additionally, she oversaw health policy for the 2004 presidential campaign.

McMurry-Heath will be the third leader of BIO since the trade group’s 1993 founding. 

In March, BIO debuted the Coronavirus Collaboration Initiative, an industry effort to share resources and capabilities to speed the development and delivery of covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and a vaccine