If Democrats thrill to the idea of a national mobilization, as they did with rousing cheer when then-Vice President Joe Biden was tapped to lead the “Cancer Moonshot” in 2016, then the follow-through on curing mankind’s greatest malady is fizzling on the launchpad due to the other great Democratic impulse — the urge to regulate and bureaucratize.
As the Wall Street Journal and others have reported, two of the most advanced American biotech companies are on the verge of an epic breakthrough in cancer screening technology and yet are being stymied by President Biden’s own pencil-pushers at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Just as President Biden and his team prepared to take office, Illumina, Inc. announced plans to re-acquire GRAIL, an early-stage health care company focused on multi-cancer early detection, for $8 billion in cash and stock consideration. The purchase makes good business sense. Illumina can use its global reach to speed up the commercialization and adoption of GRAIL’s transformative test that could detect cancers earlier, improve patient outcomes and reduce overall cancer treatment costs.
Incredibly, the FTC lacks even the wherewithal to adjudicate the proposed merger on its own merits. Instead, the agency announced last week that it would await the findings of European regulators who have their own predictably finicky qualms about the deal. That’s the reductio ad absurdum of bureaucracy: waiting in line behind continental government administrators before you can even begin your own review process. If President John F. Kennedy declared in the 1960s that we would put a man on the moon, so long as it was cleared by some nameless government workers in Brussels, the actual moonshot probably would never have happened.
The FTC’s foot-dragging isn’t going unnoticed, and this behavior is not limited to its review of Illumina. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is raising similar alarms on what he calls a “growing trend of mismanagement in the Federal Trade Commission’s handling of merger enforcement.” In a letter sent to the Commission in May, the senator detailed that even when the FTC has some solid basis for action, as with convenience store chain 7-11’s acquisition of gas station operator Speedway, the agency still can’t get its act together. In that instance, they simply dawdled while the clock expired on their own legal deadline.
The FTC is using similar bureaucratic maneuvering to run the clock out and hope Illumina abandons its acquisition of GRAIL. Except in this case, the lack of action isn’t impacting Americans shopping for a gallon of milk or gasoline, but those seeking a cure for cancer. And the need could not be more urgent. Each year, nearly 2 million Americans receive a dreaded diagnosis, and more than 600,000 people will die from one of the more than 100 types of cancer.
In my own life, a close family member received a stage I colon cancer diagnosis during a routine colonoscopy late last year. Within nine days, she had surgery to remove it, became cancer-free and received an exceptional prognosis of a long life ahead. Because colon cancer is slow-developing and symptoms often don’t appear until later stages, regular screenings are the only intervention that patients have to catch cancer early and maximize their chances of living a long, healthy life. That’s why expanding access to early detection continues to be a top priority of the health care community.
Policymakers should do all in their power to expedite the delivery of these vital tools to market. The longer bureaucrats in Brussels and D.C. withhold approval, the longer it will take for Illumina to provide GRAIL’s cancer detection capabilities to patients who need them. Illumina has even gone as far as offering contractual assurances to long-term pricing and other concessions that should allow competition from other companies to keep costs in check. Yet, the FTC has chosen to not do anything at all.
Notwithstanding the blatant choice of the FTC to turn the regulation of two U.S. companies over to a European power, both entities are denying access to a fair judicial process while creating a radical new precedent that should terrify every business leader, CEO or board of directors. If the FTC can’t stop a merger on the merits, it will simply wait for foreign interference from an allied regulator.
The complaints here go beyond the traditional arguments in support of letting the free market sort out mergers and acquisitions. Allowing a U.S. regulatory agency, in this case the Federal Trade Commission, to hand over scrutiny of an American company to a foreign power is ridiculous.
What’s worse is the bureaucratic wrangling isn’t just slowing commerce, but it is hindering ground-breaking science – in this case, a new generation of medical capabilities that could be a game-changer in ending cancer.
Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political communications firm, and a former adviser to Dr. Tom Price.