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Beyond molecules and microbes: biopharma's responsibility to racial justice in and outside its own walls

Editor’s Commentary: Biopharma needs to find its own way to address racial injustices in both health and society

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The killing of George Floyd has made it clear that life sciences leaders cannot focus exclusively on molecules or microbes, that their missions include helping to heal social as well as physical pathologies. The uncomfortable truth is that the financial and economic resources devoted to discovering and developing medicines come with responsibilities -- to help combat racism, reduce health disparities and reinvigorate civil societies.

For most, the responsibility is obvious; the urge to speak and act is spontaneous and authentic. Others are learning from their colleagues, employees, customers and families that complacency isn’t an option.

The skills and resources required to organize intellect and capital to improve health by creating medicines can be applied to improving societies, and because they can, they must.

Today’s CEOs didn’t cause the social problems they are being called on to help solve. They also aren’t responsible for the cancer, COVID-19 and countless other diseases they are trying to overcome. Biopharma, like every other sector of society, is being called to the ramparts because waiting for someone else to take the lead is unrealistic and indefensible. As an industry dedicated to making the world better, it has a special responsibility.

“We have an obligation as leaders because if we don’t do this, who will?”

Tony Coles, Cerevel

“It falls to business leaders to use the platforms they have to address the things that are absolutely wrong,” Tony Coles, executive chairman and CEO of Cerevel Therapeutics LLC, told BioCentury. “We have that responsibility because we are leaders and there is an absolute vacuum of moral leadership now. We have an obligation as leaders because if we don’t do this, who will?”

Standing on the sidelines isn’t an option, Ted Love, president and CEO of Global Blood Therapeutics, is telling his colleagues. “We have to all take the attitude that if we are not helping solve the problem we are part of promulgating the problem.”

Love and Coles are two of the few black CEOs heading biotech companies.

Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE:MRK) and the only African American ever to head a major pharma company, called on all industry executives to address racial inequities in an interview with CNBC. “Business leaders have to use every instrument at their disposal to reduce these barriers.”

Across the board, biopharma CEOs and VCs issued statements of unity, concern and compassion with the African American community this week, in an outpouring that went far beyond the boundaries of typical corporate speech (see “Biopharma Community Joins Calls for Solidarity”).

The challenge now is to convert the good intentions to tangible change.

Michelle McMurry-Heath, who was appointed president and CEO of BIO last month, told BioCentury actions must be grounded in an understanding of the personal and social toll racism has taken on society, examinations of steps that have been effective in the past, and sustained attention on the search for better solutions.

One of the obvious places to start is by improving the ways biopharma companies recruit, develop and promote diverse workforces.

Beyond diversifying their workforces, companies can make good on their commitments by developing medicines and advocating policies that reduce health disparities.

It’s personal

In a conversation with BioCentury about BIO’s response to the recent events, McMurry-Heath started by reflecting on her experience. “My mother called me and said ‘Don’t watch because when he called for his mother I broke down in tears,’” she said, referring to the video of George Floyd’s killing.

McMurry-Heath said she was struck by the fact that “it wasn’t a surprise. This is a reality we’ve lived with a long time.”

Grief, she said, is mixed with a sad familiarity. “There has been so much indignity and aggression and mistreatment over the years and I think many leaders of color looking at that video can identify with it at one level or another. Not just leaders, but everyday people as well.”

America and the world have shrugged off too many warnings, Love said. Cellphone videos of police killings and brutality have captured the world’s attention, but the issues revealed by viral videos aren’t new.

“Many leaders of color looking at that video can identify with it.”

Michelle McMurry-Heath, BIO

The problems have their origins in choices made before America was founded, in slavery which brought Africans and the disease his company’s medicine treats to America. “The people in America with sickle cell are the descendants of slaves who were abused, who after slavery were never given anything. All they were given was an alternate way to give free labor -- chain gangs.”

Frazier echoed the historical perspective in his CNBC interview, noting, “This crisis has been brewing for hundreds of years.” He added, on a personal note, that he only reached his current position because “someone intervened to give me an opportunity.”

Frazier called on businesses to go “beyond what’s required,” and address opportunity gaps. He also argued that in the highly polarized situation in the U.S. today, businesses have a unique position to make a difference because the workplace is the only environment where people cannot choose who they surround themselves with.

Actions matter

It is essential to move beyond expressions of concern, McMurry-Heath said, while acknowledging that crafting action plans is difficult and will require sustained attention.

“It has been reassuring to see how many public figures have stepped forward to rightly say this is wrong,” she said. “Statements are one thing, actions are another. How do we put the steps in the right order to try to repair the damage that has been done and get out of the place we are in? That’s a hard question to answer. It will take some time. I am hopeful the thoughtfulness this has sparked will lead us to some novel suggestions and lead us to renew some of the things that have worked in the past.”

One of the things that worked for her and for others, McMurry-Heath said, was a program that consciously created opportunities for professional advancement.

“Talking to other African Americans in biotech in the last few days, I found out that one started a program that was the key to my success, a mentorship program at Merck,” McMurry-Heath said. “It was life-changing.”

“While it isn’t necessarily a lot, we underestimate how much it is. If millions of us do this, it is extraordinary.”

Ted Love, Global Blood

The lesson, she said, is that steps that can seem small -- a mentorship program or taking a chance on someone who doesn’t look or act like those who have been successful in the past -- are important. “Sometimes steps people at companies take that may seem thin in their effectiveness do have impact and do change the world, albeit a little bit at the time. I hope we renew our faith in small kindnesses, small courtesies, heartfelt efforts, as well as come up with new ideas on how to rebuild.”

“Instead of asking ‘Can one small biotech company end all racism,’ it would be more than enough if each company stands up and says ‘What can I do, what can I contribute, what can I do different tomorrow?’”

Love also stressed the power of individual acts to alter lives. “When I reflect back on my life, one of the things I always tell people is no one person can accomplish anything of significance alone. I have benefited tremendously from support and mentorship and in my case the person [who helped] was almost always white.”

“Change,” Love said, “starts one individual at a time.”

Love said he is taking time to “mentor to a young Hispanic kid. I think it is making a difference. While it isn’t necessarily a lot, we underestimate how much it is. If millions of us do this, it is extraordinary.”

Defining goals, measuring change

The same patterns of thought and action that biopharma companies use to turn scientific insights into medicines must to applied to achieving justice, both in societies and in individual companies, Love told BioCentury. “We need to come up with a strategy to measure progress on this issue and commit to looking at it in ways that are very similar to how we run our businesses. We have goals and we hold people accountable for delivering on those goals.”

Those goals must include reducing health disparities, Love said. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated disparities, especially among African Americans who are experiencing the nation’s highest rates of disease and death. “They are disadvantaged in every way which increases their risk of getting the infection, because they are traveling on mass transit, working low paid jobs on the front lines, living in substandard conditions, are sometimes homeless.”

The biotech industry, McMurry-Heath said, must do more to ensure equity in access to the fruits of scientific research. “Healthcare disparities, the way COVID-19 has hit communities of color harder than other communities, speaks to that urgency.”

Beyond considering how they can advocate for and create better access to medicines, to live up to the commitments they’ve expressed this week, biopharma companies need to look within and change their practices.

Companies should create measurable goals around the ways they recruit and treat employees, Love said. “We have an external firm that comes in every year that looks for unconscious bias in how we are paying women or people of color.”

Other companies should follow this practice, Love said.

He also urged his colleagues to step up and work harder to diversify their companies. “We have to hire more diversity. We sit around and complain all the time that we don’t have diversity. Do something, try to get access to historically black colleges and to other arenas you are not tapping.”

“The talent is out there,” Love said.

An ever-present problem

It is essential to use today’s awareness to start conversations and launch initiatives that will continue, said McMurry-Heath.

The reality is that other priorities could push awareness of racial and social injustice out of mind for many of the people who don’t experience it every day. “It is ironic, because when you live as an African American professional in this day and age and culture, you can’t leave it behind. It is with you every day. Every day you are in a small part fighting for better perception, better treatment, better understanding of the African-American community. I can’t forget.”

She added: “This is not an African American problem, this is an American problem, and maybe even a global problem. We got here by all of our actions regardless of race and it will take sustained commitment from all of us to get out of it.”

To sustain commitment when it might recede in the minds of some it is necessary “to call on folks to make real commitments now when it is fresh and keep reminding them of those commitments,” McMurry-Heath said.

Electoral power

Love organized an all-company Zoom meeting for Global Blood staff after the George Floyd killing. He announced the company’s contribution of $150,000 to the Equal Justice Institute and discussed ideas for how the company and its employees can “support people out there who are trying to eradicate systemic inequities we have created in our society.”

And Love had another message for his team.

“I said to people ‘You have got to vote. Your votes count.’”

Love called for biopharma companies and their trade associations to incorporate ideals of racial and social justice into their campaign contributions.

The traditional posture of BIO and PhRMA, to back politicians based principally on their positions about issues like drug pricing and regulation, is not acceptable to Love.

“Human rights and social justice should be litmus tests,” he said. “If we give money to people who promote a system that disproportionately criminalizes a group of people, actively promotes an infrastructure that holds those people back, systematically makes that group of people feel lesser in society, that is wrong. And not only is it wrong, I think it is destructive of our nation.”

Editors’ commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of BioCentury.

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