"If we want to go after something big once we have wrestled COVID-19 to ground, there’s no bigger target than cardiovascular disease.” So said Amgen chairman and CEO Bob Bradway on April 28 at Fortune’s sixth annual “Brainstorm Health” conference, where he appeared on a panel with Dr. Margaret Hamburg, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). The Fortune conference brought together business leaders, health policy experts, government officials, and entrepreneurs to explore “building resilience” in healthcare as society begins to turn the corner on the pandemic.
Bradway observed that some 600,000 people die each year in the U.S. of heart disease – a toll that exceeds the number of U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19. “Can we apply the same kind of energy that we devoted to grappling with the pandemic to predicting and preventing these diseases?” he asked. “We have therapies that are very effective in reducing the burden of chronic diseases on individuals, their families, and society. The pandemic has taught us that when we line up together to tackle a public health problem, we can make a big difference. We did it as a society with cigarette smoking, we’ve done it with this pandemic, and there’s no reason we can’t do it with chronic disease.”
The panelists agreed that COVID-19 portends a coming surge of untreated chronic disease, as fear of the virus has deterred many people from seeking timely screening, diagnosis, and medical attention for conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Noting that the number of heart attack victims arriving at emergency rooms in the U.S. has fallen by one-third during the past year, Bradway cautioned that “these events are still happening, but patients just aren’t showing up to receive treatment.” He stressed the need to “encourage people to see their physicians and get the screenings they need in order to manage their chronic diseases or avoid getting sick in the first place.”
Bradway observed that the pandemic has dramatically increased the tempo of drug development. “We have a robust ecosystem in this country that encourages a range of partners – including the innovative biopharmaceutical industry, academia, government and the capital markets – to work together to tackle problems such as the pandemic,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t replicate that with some of these other large diseases.”
Bradway hailed the close partnership during the past year between innovators and regulators to identify obstacles that slow down the development and regulatory review of new medicines. “None of us wants to go back to processes that slow us down,” he declared. “We know there are patients in urgent need of cancer therapies or other medicines, and we want to apply the lessons learned from the past twelve months to the next twelve months. The speed at which this industry is operating and at which the regulators are adapting to move with us is impressive.”
But just because new medicines are being developed and approved quickly doesn’t mean they are taking into account everyone who needs them. The panelists discussed the need for structural changes to the U.S. healthcare system to ensure equitable access to care for all Americans. Bradway recognized that the biopharmaceutical industry needs to improve the diversity of participants in its clinical trials, in which African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans have been underrepresented. “We need to do a better job,” he acknowledged. “We need to understand whether our medicines work the same way across a broad swath of our U.S. population, and to a great extent that hasn’t happened in the past.”
Asked how governments and businesses can best be incentivized to address societal barriers to equitable healthcare, Bradway pointed out that our healthcare system offers handsome financial rewards for treating diseases after they have resulted in major events such as a heart attack or stroke. It doesn’t, however, reward or encourage efforts to predict and prevent those diseases in the first place.