Wednesday, August 05, 2009

CIRM Dwarfed in Biotech Patent Fight

The battle to protect the biotech industry from generic drug makers, a war in which CIRM is a dogface, is going swimmingly, according to an article this week by The Associated Press.

In a piece headlined “The influence game: Biotech drug lobbying war,” Alan Fram wrote that the weapons include “millions of dollars in lobbying, thousands in campaign contributions and uncounted visits to members of Congress. And one noteworthy letter.”

His conclusion?
“The lobbying battle has so far been one-sided. The Senate health committee voted 16-7 for a 12-year (patent) protection period last month, while (Rep. Henry) Waxman's House energy panel voted 47-11 for 12 years of protection last Friday on an amendment by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who has numerous biotech firms in or near her Silicon Valley district.”
CIRM is a decidedly bit player on this stage, given the vast stakes and expenditures involved. The agency has written a letter – NOT the one cited by Fram – after directors, over the last few months, debated whether a state-funded agency should lobby to protect the biotech industry. That letter in turn generated another letter from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. (Both can be found here.)

CIRM also has hired a Washington lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, an unusual step for a state agency, paying it $240,000 for 10 months work. But Podesta's assignments from CIRM seem to involve more than patent protection.

All of CIRM's efforts are hardly a dribble on the health care reform playing field, where all the action is taking place. The Associated Press article, distributed nationally, spells out how money talks when it comes to locking up intellectual property. Fram described a “huge disparity” in cash. He wrote,
“Representing biotech companies, the Biotechnology Industry Organization has spent $3.7 million lobbying so far this year. Their ally, (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), has spent $13.1 million — the second most of any group that lobbies in Washington.

“The main group opposing them, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, has spent $1.1 million lobbying this year. Another group, a coalition of generic drug companies, insurers and large employers, has spent another $180,000, though most of its members — like AARP and the General Motors Corp. — are more focused on the overall (health reform) bill and are devoting few resources to the generic fight.”
Fram continued,
“All that money has let the biotech industry launch a lobbying blitz, with targets including lawmakers from biotech-heavy states like California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and North Carolina.

“The biotech organization has brought its CEOs to Washington, and has run print and radio ads in the states of pivotal lawmakers. The pharmaceutical association has helped organize lobbying by universities that conduct biotech research and venture capitalists who invest in such firms, and paid for a Duke University study that concluded biotech firms need 12 to 16 years of protection from generic competitors to break even.”
All of which brings us to a business maxim of Jack Welch, the fabled executive who once led General Electric. He did not mess with enterprises in which GE could not be No. 1 or No. 2. Even today, his Web site says that maxim “stopped the decades-long practice of sprinkling money everywhere.”

The California stem cell agency is not even close to being No. 1 or No. 2 in the biotech patent protection game. That is something for CIRM directors to think about as they consider their priorities later this month when they deal with their strategic plan. Their grant portfolio is just about to hit $1 billion. They have only a tiny staff to oversee those expenditures and to hand out another $2 billion over the next few years. They will soon launch a new $210 million grant round, the largest research round ever for CIRM. And they will enter new, uncharted waters with a risky $500 million biotech lending program. A sharper focus on essentials may be in order.


  1. Although the post above properly notes that CIRM is a bit player in this debate, the post does not fully develop that CIRM is aligned on the side of big pharma, and against the side of consumer interest groups, such as Consumers Union. Further, although the AP article by Alan Fram notes the big pharma advantage "due in part to a lopsided edge in lobbying resources," the CIRM letter to Feinstein omitted mention of the lopsided edge in lobbying resources of Proposition 71 advocates in the vote in California. The post also failed to mention the irony in the alignment of a Democrat-based lobbying group (Podesta) with big pharma, while the generic lobbying effort is headed by a Republican lobbyist (Katie Huffard ). The Fram article mentioned Billy Tauzin (a once "blue dog" Democrat who became a Republican), but did not mention his role the passage of the Medicare Drug Prescription Bill, highlighted in a "60 Minutes" piece on April 1, 2007. The final irony is that CIRM, with its poorly formulated policy on intellectual property, is unlikely to benefit from this lobbying position, to the extent as California companies such as iZumi. One might say CIRM aimed, but shot the California taxpayer in the foot.

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