WASHINGTON -- The Biotechnology Industry Organization's(BIO) aggressive lobbying efforts bore fruit last week whenthey captured the attention of nationally syndicated politicalcolumnist Robert Novak. The conservative Novak, who has beena vociferous critic of the Clinton administration and its healthcare reform plan, used BIO and its arguments to further bashthe president's plan.

Novak described a relationship of escalating tension andestrangement between BIO and the White House in a columnlast week. In addition, he described a bizarre "oath of silence,"which he said Ira Magaziner, the head of Clinton's health carereform task force, forced BIO members to take at theorganization's annual meeting in Florida on Feb. 17.

The widely distributed Feb. 24 column, titled "Health CareHawks," is an ironic public relations victory for BIO. While BIOundoubtedly welcomes the national coverage, it apparentlycame at the cost of accuracy in several of Novak's assertions.

Although BIO has supported the president's goal of reformingthe health care system and providing universal coverage, theorganization has also criticized portions of the bill that wouldestablish a breakthrough drug pricing committee, requireMedicare rebates for drugs and empower the Health andHuman Services (HHS) secretary to blacklist drugs deemed tooexpensive.

In his column, Novak claimed that Magaziner summoned BIOofficials to the White House on Feb. 10 and "scolded" them forpublicly opposing elements of the plan. However, industrysources said that BIO requested the Feb. 10 meeting, and anadministration official, who asked not to be identified, said thatNovak's characterization of the meeting was "flat-out wrong."

Although Magaziner does not agree with BIO's criticisms of theClinton plan, sources said that "scolding" was not an accuratedescription of the discussion. Although it's clear that theindustry and the White House are at loggerheads over whatconstitutes price controls, it's not clear that the relationship hasdeteriorated to the degree implied in Novak's column. In fact,the continual meetings between BIO and top administrationofficials suggest that the organization has unusual politicalaccess for a relatively tiny industry.

Novak further claimed that friction between BIO and Magazinerwas pushing the trade organization to oppose the Clinton planin its entirety rather than just its alleged price controlelements. Although representatives of the Washington, D.C.,lobbying organization would not comment on Novak's column,knowledgeable sources said BIO has no plans to oppose theentire plan in the near future.

In describing a Feb. 17 teleconference between Magaziner andBIO members at the annual meeting in Florida, Novak said thatMagaziner imposed an "oath of silence" on listeners. Butseveral participants at the Florida BIO meeting and theadministration official said no such oath was taken.

"Nobody told me anything about an oath of silence," saidCalgene Inc.'s chief executive officer, Roger Salquist, who is anofficer of BIO and was at the Florida meeting. Salquistcharacterized the exchange between Magaziner and industryrepresentatives at the Florida meeting as "the same old stuff.""He gave his view, we gave our view and nobody agreed," hesaid.

Novak was not available to comment on his column.

Novak did directly echo BIO's sentiments when he wrote thatthe biotechnology industry has been "ravaged by the mereintroduction of the Clinton health plan." However, according toBioWorld's records, the industry raised more than $3.3 billionlast year, including money from public, private andpharmaceutical industry sources.

In contrast to BIO's emphasis on investors' fear of health carereform as a primary cause of decreased investment in thebiotechnology industry, Wall Street analysts say that otherfactors, such as high-profile product disappointments, anincreasing number of companies competing for a limitedamount of investment capital and the fundamental failure ofthe sector to provide the public with an attractive return oninvestment over the past two to three years, were among theprimary sources of trouble for the industry in 1993.

Novak also quoted a recent survey done by BIO that concludedthat cancer research at biotechnology companies has sufferedfrom the threat of health care reform. That survey, detailed ina Feb. 2 BIO press release, showed that 41 percent of thecompanies polled that had cut spending on cancer research didso because of the "Clinton administration's proposals for defacto price controls on breakthrough drugs."

BIO's findings on decreased cancer research are confounded bythe fact that the area has been a minefield for biotechnologycompanies. Clinical trials in cancer take longer than studies forother diseases and must enroll large numbers of patients. Inaddition, oncologists are notoriously slow to adopt newtherapies. As a result, cancer research programs no longer playwell on Wall Street.

As one biotechnology company communications officer whoresponded to BIO's survey put it, "Decreases in cancer spendingmore likely reflect the lack of FDA-approvable end points forclinical trials. It's easy to blame problems on health carereform, but that's just a boilerplate response."

Despite the inaccuracies, Novak's column was a clear publicityvictory for BIO. The trade association has won praise fromindustry executives for its scrappy, aggressive approach topromoting the industry's interests and winning regularaudiences with top administration officials.

"BIO is finally having an impact, and I'm proud of it," saidCalgene's Salquist. "Their arguments are holding water. It'swhen people start complaining about you that you know you'remaking progress."

-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.