Here's the (edited) transcript of an interview that Pfizer's VP of clinical research, Charles Knirsch, gave to PBS's Frontline program. The subject was the rise of resistant bacteria - which is a therapeutic area that Pfizer is no longer active in.
And that's the subject of the interview, or one of its main subjects. I get the impression that the interviewer would very much like to tell a story about how big companies walked away to let people die because they couldn't make enough money off of them:
. . .If you look at the course of a therapeutic to treat pneumonia, OK, … we make something, a macrolide, that does that. It’s now generic, and probably the whole course of therapy could cost $30 or $35. Even when it was a branded antibiotic, it may have been a little bit more than that.
So to cure pneumonia, which in some patient populations, particularly the elderly, has a high mortality, that’s what people are willing to pay for a therapeutic. I think that there are differences across different therapeutic areas, but for some reason, with antibacterials in particular, I think that society doesn’t realize the true value.
And did it become incumbent upon you at some point to make choices about which things would be in your portfolio based on this?
Based on our scientific capabilities and the prudent allocation of capital, we do make these choices across the whole portfolio, not just with antibacterials.
But talk to me about the decision that went into antibacterials. Pfizer made a decision in 2011 and announced the decision. Obviously you were making choices among priorities. You had to answer to your shareholders, as you’ve explained, and you shifted. What went into that decision?
I think that clearly our vaccine platforms are state of the art. Our leadership of the vaccine group are some of the best people in the industry or even across the industry or anywhere really. We believe that we have a higher degree of success in those candidates and programs that we are currently prosecuting.
So it’s a portfolio management decision, and if our vaccine for Clostridium difficile —
Yeah, a bacteria which is a major cause of both morbidity and mortality of patients in hospitals, the type of thing that I would have been consulted on as an infectious disease physician, that in fact we will prevent that, and we’ll have a huge impact on human health in the hospitals.
But did that mean that you had to close down the antibiotic thing to focus on vaccines? Why couldn’t you do both?
Oh, good question. And it’s not a matter of closing down antibiotics. We were having limited success. We had had antibiotics that we would get pretty far along, and a toxicity would emerge either before we even went into human testing or actually in human testing that would lead to discontinuation of those programs. . .
It's that last part that I think is insufficiently appreciated. Several large companies have left the antibiotic field over the years, but several stayed (GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca come to mind). But the ones who stayed were not exactly rewarded for their efforts. Antibacterial drug discovery, even if you pour a lot of money and effort into it, is very painful. And if you're hoping to introduce a mechanism of action into the field, good luck. It's not impossible, but if it were easy to do, more small companies would have rushed in to do it.
Knirsch doesn't have an enviable task here, because the interviewer pushes him pretty hard. Falling back on the phrase "portfolio management decisions" doesn't help much, though:
In our discussion today, I get the sense that you have to make some very ruthless decisions about where to put the company’s capital, about where to invest, about where to put your emphasis. And there are whole areas where you don’t invest, and I guess the question we’re asking is, do you learn lessons about that? When you pulled out of Gram-negative research like that and shifted to vaccines, do you look back on that and say, “We learned something about this”?
These are not ruthless decisions. These are portfolio decisions about how we can serve medical need in the best way. …We want to stay in the business of providing new therapeutics for the future. Our investors require that of us, I think society wants a Pfizer to be doing what we do in 20 years. We make portfolio management decisions.
But you didn’t stay in this field, right? In Gram negatives you didn’t really stay in that field. You told me you shifted to a new approach.
We were not having scientific success, there was no clear regulatory pathway forward, and the return on any innovation did not appear to be something that would support that program going forward.
Introducing the word "ruthless" was a foul, and I'm glad the whistle was blown. I might have been tempted to ask the interviewer what it meant, ruthless, and see where that discussion went. But someone who gives in to temptations like that probably won't make VP at Pfizer.