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Merck, Roche and J&J among pharma players weighing Russian operations amid humanitarian tightrope walk

You can’t buy a Coke, Frappuccino or Big Mac in Russia anymore, but cancer patients may still be able to get Merck’s megablockbuster Keytruda.

While scores of Western corporations have halted business in the country in protest of its Ukraine invasion, the pharmaceutical industry has been walking a humanitarian tightrope: Most drugmakers have condemned the war and promised to halt new investments in Russia—but few have stopped operations altogether in the aggressor nation.

That’s because drugs, vaccines and medical devices are exempt from the sanctions imposed by Europe and the U.S., pharma and healthcare companies have argued in recent weeks. Economic restrictions aside, many in the industry contend there’s a moral obligation to continue providing drugs to patients in need, regardless of where they live.

Merck, for instance, recently cited a “humanitarian” responsibility behind its decision to keep supplying Russia with essential meds and vaccines.

“Any profits resulting from these sales will be donated to humanitarian causes,” the company said Monday in an updated response to the war.

Roche, for its part, has pledged donations to suffering Ukranians, but it has not made a public pledge to donate profits. Instead of generating any Russian profits, Roche is taking a financial hit from operations there, the company’s CEO Severin Schwan told Swiss newspaper TagesAnzeiger, as quoted by Reuters.

“We can’t just withhold life-saving cancer drugs from Russian patients,” the CEO said. “There is an international consensus that medicines are exempt from sanctions.”

Because prices there are fixed in Russian roubles, Roche is “losing money in Russia” as it provides medication to patients, the CEO said.

Merck is also donating certain products to people in Ukraine, including its COVID-19 drug molnupiravir, asthma inhaler Proventil, antibiotic Tienam IV and animal health vaccines to Ukrainian farmers.

Johnson & Johnson is among the pharma giants weighing how to respond. Tuesday, the company said it will continue to supply medicines and medical devices to the region, though it’s pulling its personal care products in Russia.

The company is also doubling its humanitarian donation from $5 million to $10 million and providing the Ukrainian region with products like hygiene kits, health packets and medical supplies. Moreover, J&J early this month “suspended all advertising, enrollment in clinical trials, and any additional investment in Russia.”

The companies aren’t alone in making humanitarian pledges. Pfizer earlier this month said it would donate all profits from its Russian subsidiary but continue to supply needed medicines in the country. AbbVie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, Merck, Novartis and many other companies have donated either cash or drugs to the Ukrainian people.

While humanitarian concessions might dispel the notion that companies are profiting off Russia during the war, some critics, like Yale Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, argue the industry needs to adopt a harder stance.

“If we continue to make life palatable for (Russians), then we are continuing to support the regime,” Sonnenfeld told KHN earlier this month. “These drug companies will be seen as complicit with the most vicious operation on the planet. Instead of protecting life, they are going to be seen as destroying life.”

Merck sees things differently. The company says it’s “saved and improved” lives around the world for more than 130 years, and it remains steadfast in that mission through its current efforts—both in Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, the company is complying with all international sanctions in its bid to help keep Russian public health afloat. Merck added that it doesn’t have research or manufacturing facilities in Russia.

On the collaborative front, Merck says it will keep the scientific exchange of information with stakeholders intact, though the company will refrain from investing further in Russia. Specifically, Merck is putting the kibosh on all promotional activities, capital investments and business development initiatives in the country. The company has suspended screening and enrollment in ongoing clinical trials, while plans for new studies have been put on the backburner.

Russian patients already enrolled in Merck studies will still receive treatment, however, and the company will continue to collect data as it works to ensure “no patient is left behind.”

Merck had donated more than $65 million in cash and medical products to Ukraine as of March 28.