Gov. Chris Christie’s opening remarks to a roomful of pharmaceutical industry executives were sobering: “Our friends are dying, and our children are dying.”
Twenty people representing a dozen large drug companies participated in a two-hour roundtable. The idea was to bring the industry into partnership with President Trump’s National Opioid Commission, which Christie chairs.
Adding a bit of star power to the event was Kellyanne Conway, the president’s point person on the opioid crisis. The roundtable was closed to the press.
At a press conference later, Christie said each company agreed to work toward two goals.
“One, to help to develop new, non-opioid pain medication and to put that on a fast track in partnership with NIH,” he said. “Secondly, is to help to develop additional medication assisted treatment for those who are already suffering from this disease, to have additional options beyond the three main options that are available right now.”
The National Institutes of Health will serve as a clearinghouse for drug development. Its director stressed the urgency of its mission.
“Any of us in this room can probably relate to stories of people whose lives have been threatened or lost to this crisis. More people are dying now of opioid overdoses than died of HIV/AIDS at the peak of that epidemic back in the late 1980s. This is a public health emergency of the most significant sort,” said NIH Director Francis Collins.
Conway said the opioid crisis is a major priority of the president’s, one that Trump entrusted to Christie and that transcends politics.
“It’s a bipartisan commission because opioid addiction is a nonpartisan issue starving for bipartisan solutions,” she said. “Of all the politically charged issues that attend to your issue in Trenton, attend to our work in Washington D.C., this is one that really should bring people together left, right and center.”
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America President and CEO Steve Ubl said designing new painkillers that are not addictive is a complex problem.
“How can we streamline and bring to patients more quickly non-opioid alternatives? Our companies have over 40 compounds under development, but there are silos and barriers to information sharing, clinical trial design issues, that can be modified to make sure those products make their way to patients more expeditiously,” said Ubl.
Christie’s commission recommended in July that Trump declare a national opioid emergency. That hasn’t happened yet.
“We have absolute confidence it needs to be done, and as the president stated in Bedminster at the beginning of August, he considers this a national emergency and has instructed his staff to come up with the appropriate executive order to do that,” said Christie. “As recently as this past weekend when I spoke to the president, he reiterated his commitment to that getting done.”
Christie said 52,000 Americans died of opioid addiction in 2015 and that the death toll rose to 64,000 in 2016.
“That means we have a 9/11 loss of death every three weeks,” he said. “That means we have 17, 9/11s a year in this country. Can you imagine the people of this country knowingly putting up with 17, 9/11s a year in terms of loss of human life?”
The governor said he’ll roll out a new $200 million state initiative on opioids as the week unfolds. His duties as chairman of the national opioid commission will end in December.