Pfizer faces the parliamentary music for a second day, but AstraZeneca comes out bruised

The pharma bosses were hauled in front of MPs again: Ian Read was unflappable, Pascal Soriot contradictory.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 14 May 2014

Another day, another gruelling grilling for Pfizer chairman and chief exec Ian Read by MPs, (the Science Select Committee this time), who look like they’re thoroughly enjoying being able to hang a big business out to dry.

However, the Scottish-born pharma boss once again came across as pretty unfazed by the questioning (someone give the man’s media trainer a medal), although he didn’t make many political friends by continuing to refuse to commit numbers to R&D staff (he’s said 20% will stay in the UK, without giving the total figure) and spending should the company’s takeover of AstraZeneca succeed.

Read did let slip that his colleagues were ‘extremely upset at the way things have been painted in the press’, although he surely can’t expect to give nothing away and win the hearts of the masses (no cake for you Ian Read).

It was AstraZeneca chief exec Pascal Soriot, however, who emerged looking worse for wear. He’d had the Business Select Committee queueing up to back him yesterday and then squandered the goodwill somewhat by revealing his company paid no UK corporation tax last year.

The bigger problem for Soriot, though, was the contradictions between his emotive anti-takeover arguments and his admission that his duty to shareholders meant he couldn’t rule out accepting a further Pfizer bid. In other words, show us the money - rumoured to be £55 per share, compared to the previous offer of £50 - and we’ll talk.

However, yesterday Soriot effectively said a takeover could cost lives. ‘Any distractions on work we are doing now could run the risk of delaying our drugs pipeline,’ he told the committee. ‘What will we tell the person whose father died from lung cancer because one of our medicines was delayed because our companies were involved in saving taxes or saving costs?’

Given Soriot’s confirmation he was open to a high-enough offer for AstraZeneca, it looks like the drugs boss is willing to lay lives on the line if enough cash is on the table. Smooth.

Read was having none of it, telling MPs today, ‘if anything, it [drug development] would be accelerated.’

Soriot also raised the ‘very different geographies’ of the two companies’ R&D (UK and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for AstraZeneca and California for Pfizer) and the human impact of the takeover. Fair enough, but all issues that can be ironed out for the right price.

The government, meanwhile, is staying pretty schtum on whether it will use new laws to get Pfizer to stick to its ‘commitments’ and Science Minister David Willetts reminded everyone today that a formal bid was ‘ultimately a matter for the shareholders in AstraZeneca’. Over to you then investors.

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