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Swampy Advocacy Advances Crises — This Drugmaker Could be Part of the Problem

Opinion Editorial by: Taylor Weyeneth, Managing Director of 20K Strategies. Posted to on February 14, 2020.


Big Pharma’s disproportionate levels of spending and influence over our DC politicians has been outrageous. Gilead Sciences — one of America's largest pharmaceutical companies — appears to be a part of that problem. It’s also one of the Big Pharma companies that seem to be engaged in just as much, or even more, bad behavior than good. But Gilead is working hard to mend it’s reputation in DC, where it’s profit margin can be improved by leaders like President Trump who want to bring down the cost of prescription drugs.

Earlier this month, Gilead published under-the-radar advertising in the form of paid placements in Politico Influence, an email newsletter that chronicles the happenings of DC's lobbying community. First spotted on February 4, Gilead claims that it can help lead the fight against the HIV epidemic:

“Ending the HIV epidemic will take more than just scientific advances. It will require public- and private-sector partnerships that focus on disease treatment, prevention and education.” As the week continued, the paid placements also progressed. This is interesting, because it looks like a not-very-well veiled self-promotional effort to shape President Trump’s opinion on drug pricing, and get him to abandon his base.

The same day that Gilead secured a paid placement, the President himself called for a prescription drug reform bill in his State of the Union address. That can’t be coincidental. No doubt Gilead wants to influence the shape of the Presidents’ bill and create a perception that it’s part of the solution on drug pricing and access issues, not part of the problem. The truth appears to be different.

In recent months, the conversation has shifted away from the opioid crisis that has ravaged rural America, specifically in Trump-supporting communities. However, the crisis continues. The way we respond to the opioid crisis and the related HIV crisis says a lot about our pro-life values in action. We can’t say we are pro-life while abandoning those most vulnerable in our society. If we are pro-life, we are pro-life for the entirety of someone’s life, not just until birth.

The fact is, Gilead is spending a lot of money to make itself look like part of the solution, the most recent estimate is $15,000 a week per placement according to a source who received a quote for the same newsletter.

To be clear, Gilead makes the HIV prevention medication Truvada, and it’s not cheap. A monthly supply retails for around $2,000 and Gilead reported $3 billion in revenue from the sale of the drug worldwide. With the monopoly that Gilead has on the market for this lifesaving HIV-medication, they are able to overcharge for their product and use their elevated revenue to influence politicians and the public through paid advertisements.

But a CDC analysis showed that only 90,000 of the estimated 1.1 million at-risk Americans had received a prescription for Truvada. Part of that is the price and access. It’s worth mentioning that Gilead is trying to cut the 340B drug discount program that keeps open many health care providers able to dispense Truvada at all, and ensures others can dispense it at a discount. And both of these things remain problems, irrespective of what paid placements in Beltway newsletters indicate.

Also, the Department of Health and Human Services is suing Gilead over Truvada, claiming that the drugmaker is violating federal patents held by the CDC and attempting to force Gilead to return some of its profits from the drug to the government.

Meanwhile, Gilead’s federal lobbying grew by 117 percent in 2019, as the drugmaker tried to kill programs that would help at-risk Americans get affordable access to drugs like Truvada. And that’s official lobbying — not counting paid placements.

There’s a lot of swampy behavior here, and a clever effort to rebrand an actor that many Americans will instinctively believe does more harm than good. Placements like this shouldn’t be the shiny object that distracts us all from the goal of ensuring drug prices come down — especially drugs that are essential to addressing the opioid and HIV crises.

Taylor Weyeneth is the former deputy chief of staff to the White House drug policy office and is the managing director of 20K Strategies, a political operations and public policy strategy firm. He is a thought leader for addiction, mental health, and workforce development.

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