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Diversity is long overdue in the drug industry—and it’s going to take more than just hiring Black candidates

August 12, 2020, 5:08 PM UTC

Companies across America have scrambled to deepen their commitments to workplace diversity and inclusion in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing national outrage. In many cases, these efforts have taken the form of widening applicant pools to Black candidates and other people of color, conducting pay equity analyses, and mentorship programs, among others.

American drug giant Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) is no different. The firm announced on Wednesday that it was adding to its existing diversity measures with a new $300 million investment over five years to achieve equity across multiple fronts. But this effort comes with a clinical twist.

BMS and its charitable arm the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation say this investment will help fund workplace diversity initiatives such as achieving executive level gender parity worldwide by 2022, and within the U.S., to double the number of Black, Hispanic, and Latino employees at the executive level.

But as a drug developer, BMS has opportunities to expand equity beyond its own workforce—including in the clinical trials it conducts and the local suppliers it uses.

The company says those efforts will include actually training 250 new clinical trial investigators (those who are in charge of overseeing the research which fuels the development of new drugs) across the racial and ethnic spectrum. The thinking is that this expansion will lead to a wider net of patients in underserved populations who may not even know they have access to clinical trials.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has admitted as much and set up task forces to make up for the disparities—a critical initiative given the way that biology works.

If a disease disproportionately afflicts one population, yet that population isn’t properly represented in clinical trials, an approved drug may prove more effective for a certain set of people than it does for another.

That’s been a persistent problem in drug development. For instance, in cancer drug trials, a participant’s race may not even be reported at all, and Black and Hispanic populations tend to be under-represented. For instance, about 20 percent of patients with the blood cancer multiple myeloma are Black, two to three times the number of white patients.

And yet, a median of just 4.5 percent of participants enrolled in pivotal multiple myeloma trials between 2003 and 2017 were Black, according to a study by the American Society of Hematology (ASH).

“Clinical trial diversity needs acceleration. We see tremendous opportunity for longer-term, sustainable impact by supporting ethnically diverse physician scientists to engage in clinical research while also establishing clinical research sites in diverse communities,” said BMS chief medical officer Samit Hirawat in a statement.