Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, earlier this year criticized efforts to control drug prices in an opinion piece published in multiple newspapers, but she did not disclose her role as a highly compensated member of the board at Cambridge biotech Moderna.
Nabel was identified at the bottom of the article as Brigham and Women’s president, a Harvard Medical School professor, and a cardiologist. Some publications also noted that her husband, Dr. Gary Nabel, is chief scientific officer for the French drug giant Sanofi.
But none of the articles mentioned that since 2015 she had sat on the Moderna board, received $487,500 in stock option awards and other payments from it last year, and owned millions of dollars in company stock.
“If we want American firms to continue producing lifesaving treatments, we need to protect them,” Nabel wrote. Efforts by lawmakers to control prescription drug prices were “well-intentioned,” she said, but they “could eliminate the financial incentives that allow research scientists to explore new treatments.”
That argument ― put forth in the piece published in several newspapers around the country in February and March ― is often made by the pharmaceutical industry to justify drug prices. It’s less commonly a position held by doctors and other health care professionals, some of whom have assailed the skyrocketing costs of medicines.
Erin McDonough, a Brigham and Women’s spokeswoman, characterized Nabel’s failure to mention her role at the drug firm as an oversight.
“The omission was not intentional and Dr. Nabel regrets that her connection to Moderna was not disclosed,” McDonough said.
While the article never mentioned COVID-19, Moderna was already working on its potential vaccine for the virus at the time it was published. This week, executives at Moderna ― the first pharmaceutical firm to conduct human trials of a coronavirus vaccine in the United States ― said in a conference call with analysts that the company plans to charge as much as $37 a dose for its experimental vaccine. That’s more than three times what some industry rivals say they will set as a price for their vaccines.
One of the larger newspapers to publish Nabel’s column was the Detroit News. Nolan Finley, the paper’s editorial page editor, said Thursday that an editor who has left the paper handled the opinion piece. Finley said Nabel’s role at the drug company should have been made known.
“We assumed she was writing this from her official position with the hospital,” he said. “Had we been aware of that sort of conflict, we would not have run it.”
The Connecticut Post and the Roundup Record-Tribune & Winnett Times of Montana were among the other news outlets that published the piece. The same article was also submitted to the Globe’s Opinion section, but it was not accepted for publication, which is not unusual given the volume of unsolicited opinion columns the paper receives.
Nabel, who has run Brigham and Women’s since 2010, has come under scrutiny lately for her relationship with Moderna. The hospital is playing a key role in a large nationwide study of the experimental vaccine for COVID-19 developed by Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
She resigned from Moderna’s board last week after the Globe asked hospital officials whether her position at the biotech firm conflicted with the hospital’s work in the late-stage clinical trial. The hospital is one of 89 clinical sites for the trial, which is being led nationwide partly by a Brigham and Women’s infectious diseases specialist.
Since May, Nabel has sold about $8.5 million worth of stock in Moderna, whose share price has nearly quadrupled this year on news of early success of the experimental vaccine. The stock sales have angered some hospital employees, who point out that Brigham and Women’s parent company, Mass General Brigham, reduced or froze the salaries of employees and suspended contributions to their retirement benefits in pandemic-related budget cuts at the same time Nabel was cashing out some of her shares.
She still has 109,237 options to buy Moderna stock at a predetermined price, according the hospital. She received $425,000 in stock option awards from the biotech last year, as well as a $62,500 payment, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Brigham and Women’s officials said Tuesday that Nabel and the board have agreed she will divest her remaining options as soon as possible, which a hospital spokeswoman said was the next “open trading window,” under SEC rules.
Nabel continues to serve on the board of directors of a multinational medical technology company, Medtronic, a position she has held since 2014. Last year, Medtronic paid her more than $407,000 while the firm did business with her hospital, according to a database maintained by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
But McDonough said Nabel’s actual compensation from Medtronic was $264,000. Nabel, she said, never saw the remaining $143,000, which paid for flights to Dublin ― where Medtronic has its headquarters ― along with lodging, and other expenses.
In the op-ed piece, Nabel wrote that she has seen American scientists develop hundreds of life-saving medicines since she finished medical school nearly 40 years ago. As director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health from 2005 to 2009, Nabel wrote, she witnessed scientists pioneer novel ways to treat rare and serious blood disorders in children.
“Unfortunately, our innovation ecosystem is now under assault,” she said. “In Congress, some lawmakers want to import foreign price controls. Others want to introduce price controls in Medicare. Still others want to allow the federal government to set prices on any medicine whose origin lies in government-funded research.”
While such government labs play an important role, she wrote, it’s small venture-backed biomedical companies, often in collaboration with top teaching hospitals and large drug firms, that typically bring medicines to market after making huge investments.
Dr. Roy Poses, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Brown University who writes about medical ethics, said it was odd that Nabel disclosed that her husband is chief scientific officer at Sanofi, but didn’t mention her role at Moderna.
“She should have disclosed that she was on the board of a drug company and therefore had a fiduciary responsibility to the company, which these days mean a duty to maximize revenues,” he said. “That’s very inconsistent.”
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.