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DCAT Week Ennui

Too much defense and not enough offense at drug industry event

by Rick Mullin
April 6, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 14

Credit: DCAT
The black-tie DCAT dinner in the storied Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Credit: DCAT
The black-tie DCAT dinner in the storied Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

JUDGING BY THE CROWD that gathered last month at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City for the annual dinner hosted by the Drug, Chemical & Associated Technologies Association (DCAT), the pharmaceutical industry and its chemical suppliers are holding up under recessionary pressure. The black-tie gala, however, may not be the best economic indicator. Companies that sponsor tables are unlikely to skip a year and lose their tables' proximity to the dais.

The lunch held earlier that day by the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA) was also well attended. Still, DCAT Week, the string of meetings and meals that cluster around the big dinner for a week in March, was a downer this year.

The recession was not the only drag. The coming battle over health care reform and the industry's prospects given a Democratic Administration and Congress in Washington, D.C., made for a lot of grousing and defeatist sarcasm. The mood was nearly wakelike at the Bull & Bear Steakhouse & Bar, a popular gathering place before the dinner, as industry folk discussed whether they'd be back next year. When word went around that Sir Harry's Bar upstairs in the Waldorf had a fortune teller, one could see a steady flow of tuxedos and evening gowns out the door and up the stairs.

Indeed, the road forward seemed uncertain at this year's DCAT Week. And the speakers weren't much help. John L. LaMattina, the former Pfizer R&D head, at lunch, and Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, at dinner, offered two distinct voices from the recent but now seemingly distant past.

An industry conservative, LaMattina has written a book called "Drug Truths: Dispelling the Myths About Pharma R&D." His luncheon presentation framed statements from the industry's harshest critics in such a way as to easily render absolute rebuttals. The net effect was that legitimate and important questions about how big drug companies rate on innovation, spending, pricing, and meeting medical needs in developed and undeveloped countries were summarily dismissed if not mocked.

LaMattina offered behind-the-scenes insights on topics such as the difficulties large drug companies face in advancing drugs through their pipelines. His advocacy admits little fault on the part of the drug industry, however, and he sees no need for radical change. On the question of whether health care research going forward will require greater cooperation between competing drug companies, for example, LaMattina's answer was, "I don't believe that at all." He clearly sees a choice between the commercial incentive of competition and the morass of lowest common denominators.

ALTHOUGH LESS STRIDENT Rice's talk was also a defense of traditionalism. She evoked the core American values that got us through any number of crises in the past as the key to getting through the current recession. Her speech was a snoozer compared with LaMattina's. She didn't name many names, for example, other than those of Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin. LaMattina's PowerPoint slides, on the other hand, boldly broadcast Marsha Angel, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, as critics who he believes propagate "myths" about big pharma.

Far more compelling than either keynote was Rice's warm-up act, Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation & Research at the Food & Drug Administration. Her short address at the dinner was a direct call for cooperation between drug companies, their suppliers, and regulators in policing the global pharmaceutical supply chain. The vulnerability of that chain and FDA's inability to singlehandedly secure it was illustrated quite clearly by last year's heparin emergency.

Woodcock's talk was less palatable to the DCAT crowd than LaMattina's defense of the industry and Rice's values platitudes. But her message charged some people up. Executives I talked to afterward told me they see supply-chain security as a top issue for patients. And a united front is already forming. An international pharmaceutical supply-chain consortium called Rx-360 is beginning to recruit members and planning an official launch in June.

Martin VanTrieste, vice president of commercial quality for Amgen and head of the advisory board for Rx-360, sees the consortium as part of a recent shift in the drug industry toward sharing noncompetitive information. This new cooperation has allowed companies to begin employing rudimentary quality management programs that have benefited other industries for decades. VanTrieste chaired a DCAT-sponsored panel discussion on the global supply chain earlier in the week.

Important stuff, but when quality and supply-chain management are the most compelling issues at DCAT Week, it can mean one of two things: that the industry has big problems with its quality and supply chain or that the DCAT Week program needs a little more fire. Or could it mean both? It may not be too early for DCAT to queue up for Hillary Clinton as a future keynote speaker.

Fortune teller, anyone?

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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