Guest: Protect incentives for biotech investment
Federal lawmakers must protect the incentives that enable Washington’s biotech firms to invest in new research lines, writes guest columnist Chris Rivera
Special to The Times
THE future of Washington state’s economy lies in technology. According to a new report from the Washington Roundtable, an extraordinary 5,000 high-tech jobs are expected to open up locally every year over the foreseeable future.
A big reason for the Evergreen State’s technology-driven economy is biotechnology — an industry on the cusp of producing a historic abundance of new advanced medicines. This fast-approaching deluge of biotech innovation won’t just produce a wealth of lifesaving medicines. It will also generate the kind of sustained growth and job creation that our state so badly needs.
Realizing this prosperous future, however, will require federal lawmakers to protect the incentives that enable Washington’s biotech giants to invest in new research lines.
Over the past decade, we have seen revolutionary new treatments for illnesses like hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and cancer. These drugs have changed the landscape of medical technology.
According to a new report, America’s biopharmaceutical companies are currently developing more than 900 different biotechnology medicines to treat more than 100 diseases ranging from asthma to leukemia.
Washington — where the Department of Commerce’s motto reads “Innovation is in our nature” — is well placed to benefit from this biotech boom. According to National Science Foundation data, more than 14 percent of Washington residents are employed in high-tech industries — some 25 percent higher than the national average.
In our state, life-sciences research and business directly support more than 35,500 local jobs, and indirectly support another 57,000, creating an overall employment impact of nearly 91,000 jobs. In 2010, life sciences in Washington state created $10.4 billion of gross domestic product and $6.6 billion in personal income.
But biopharmaceutical breakthroughs don’t happen overnight. In fact, developing these medicines is a costly, time-intensive process. Researchers at Tufts University estimate that it requires, on average, more than a decade for a new biotech treatment to wind its way through the development pipeline and onto the market. This lengthy ordeal can easily cost more than a billion dollars.
Policymakers play a significant role in continued medical innovation. Ill-conceived reform could destroy the delicate incentive scheme that encourages investment in new biotech medicines.
Leaders in Washington, D.C., are currently considering several such reforms. The first would reduce the length of the “data protection” period granted to innovative biotech firms.
Currently, biologic producers that create a brand new drug are given a 12-year period during which other firms are prohibited from releasing competing products onto the market. This window of time incentivizes biotech companies to invest in new research lines while also allowing low-cost, non-brand biologics to eventually get to patients.
In his budget, President Obama proposed reducing this period to just seven years. By doing so, he would make the prospect of creating new lifesaving medicines far less attractive for biotech investment. The result would be a marked slowdown in medical innovation.
The President’s budget also includes a plan to impose price controls in Medicare Part D. The proposal would implement a rebate scheme on medicines sold to low-income beneficiaries. Doing so would distort the pharmaceutical market and drive up premiums for many of the program’s other beneficiaries.
Both of these proposals pose a threat to an industry that is on the brink of historic advancements. These “reforms” would stand in the way of the economic growth and job creation that the biotech sector is poised to deliver to the Evergreen State.
Policymakers in Washington, D.C., should understand that the biotech boom is hardly a foregone conclusion. It’s up to them to support a business environment in which innovation can flourish.
Chris Rivera is president of the Washington State Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.