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‘We have to make a stand’: Biotech leaders vow to break ties with Russia over Ukraine war

Hundreds of biotech leaders are pledging to stop working with Russian companies and to reject investment from Russian funds in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

In an open letter, more than 400 drugmaker CEOs, executives and investors condemned Russia’s actions and called for “immediate and complete economic disengagement,” including cessation of new investment within Russian borders and any trade in goods and services beyond food and medicine.

“We have to make a stand as leaders,” said Paul Hastings, a co-author of the letter, CEO of Nkarta Therapeutics and chairman of the trade group BIO. “We have a voice, we want to use it and we want to encourage others.”

Signatories include the CEOs of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, SeaGen and Sarepta Therapeutics as well as the chairman of Biogen and many notable investors from the venture capital firms Atlas Venture and RA Capital.

Many of the executives represented work for smaller biotech companies, and it’s not clear how many speak directly for their companies, or how extensive their companies’ links to Russia are.

Still, the letter is another example, albeit on a small scale, of businesses in the U.S. and Europe moving to sever ties with Russian business in response to the country’s war on Ukraine. U.K.-based oil giants BP and Shell both announced plans to end relationships with Russian energy companies, while some companies like Volvo and GM are halting shipments to Russia. Western nations have said they will cut off certain Russian banks from an important messaging network, as well as levy other economic sanctions, the prospect of which has sunk the value of Russia’s currency.

The biotech industry, while global, is heavily concentrated in the U.S. and Western Europe, likely meaning fewer business relationships with Russian firms than in other industries like energy, finance and manufacturing. Agios Pharmaceuticals and Acorda Therapeutics, two companies whose CEOs signed the letter, both said in emailed statements that they do not have ongoing business in Russia, for instance.

Sarepta, in a statement emailed to BioPharma Dive after this story was published, noted it also does not have any “specific business arrangements” in Russia, adding that agrees with the letter’s spirit.

Yet biotech companies do run clinical trials in Ukraine and Russia — a large number of which are likely to be impacted by the war — and Russia’s sovereign wealth fund does invest in the life sciences, including funding the Moscow-based Gamaleya Center’s development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hastings, who worked with five other biotech leaders to organize the letter, hopes their call for economic disengagement can rally enough support to have an impact.

“We’re not telling people they must follow our mandate,” Hastings said. “We’re saying, in each of your companies, think about what makes sense for you to do to discourage this kind of behavior and to condemn it.”

One option, he said, is to avoid running clinical trials in Russia while it continues to wage war in Ukraine. International trial sites can be particularly valuable for testing new treatments and Russia is one country biotechs often consider. In an interview, Hastings vowed his company, which is nearing its first human trials, “wouldn’t even look there.”

Companies should also reconsider starting new collaborations with Russian academic institutions or service providers like clinical research organizations, Hastings said. The idea is to cut off relationships by which the biotech industry bolsters Russia’s economy. “All of those [agreements] need to be attacked and addressed,” said Jeremy Levin, who also helped organize the letter and runs a company called Ovid Therapeutics. Levin was Hastings’ predecessor as BIO chair.

In its statement, Agios pledged not to invest in Russian companies or accept investments from Russian funds. It won’t trade with or start partnerships with companies in the country either, a spokesperson said. BioPharma Dive reached out to other companies whose CEOs signed the letter, but, excepting Acorda and Sarepta, did not hear back from them by publication.

Startups and their investors can also play a role, said Jason Rhodes, a partner at Atlas. Atlas doesn’t have any direct investments in Russia, but “we certainly have economic engagement” through portfolio companies, he said, and can make its position clear. Venture firms can also opt against licensing intellectual property from Russia or if possible, advise their startups to not take further investments from Russian backers.

“There’s only so much influence I have, the investment community has, or any one biotech has,” Rhodes said, “but I think everyone has a moral responsibility to do this.”

Few multinational companies are represented among the letter’s signatories. Hastings noted that the group has been talking with several larger companies, but hasn’t asked them to sign the letter as that could “create tension” with employees they have in Russia.

Hastings and Levin are not acting on behalf of BIO, but noted that industry organizations could help provide humanitarian aid and help ensure medicines get delivered to patients.

While the letter’s practical impact may be minimal, Hastings and Levin hope to add the biotech industry’s voice to the business community’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion.

The two have led multiple efforts to spur activism from biotech leaders in the past, such as after violent protests by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and over preserving the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA.

In 2020, they called attention to what they viewed as signs of political interference in the development of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. “We had an effect there,” Levin claimed, as a “major coalition” of business leaders in other sectors joined afterwards.

Hastings and Levin are hoping for similar support with their recent letter. “We’ve said no to tyranny from Russia and provided routes for our companies to take action,” Levin said. “We set an example for the other industries — IT, mineral, agriculture, financial services — we hope they will follow.”