It’s been more than three weeks since Hamas executed its sweeping and heinous attack against Israel, leaving the country battered, but bent on the terrorist group’s annihilation.

During that time, multiple biopharma CEOs have joined the ranks of prominent business leaders in condemning the October 7 invasion.

Among the chief executives to strongly rebuke Hamas’ acts were those of Pfizer and Merck, Eli Lilly, Bayer and Regeneron. While biopharma’s denunciation of the violence was far from unanimous, the responses show there’s a growing cohort of health industry titans who aren’t afraid to speak up during crises that put their life-saving values to the test.

“I am heartbroken and furious to read the terrible news out of Israel,” tweeted Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla, who was one of the first to do so. 

Others who stepped up to champion values included Lilly CEO Dave Ricks who wrote on LinkedIn, “Violence is never an answer, and the murder of innocent civilians is terrorism with no justification.” 

Meanwhile, Merck CEO Rob Davis noted on the same platform, “I am deeply saddened and appalled by the recent terrorist attack on innocent Israeli citizens, and I am concerned about the potential for further suffering and loss of life among innocent people due to the ongoing conflict.” 

Multiple comments took issue with those moral stances, including several who criticized Davis and Ricks for overlooking Palestinians’ plight and one warning that Merck could lose market share in Muslim and Arab countries for doing so. 

Such reactions highlight the real risks of speaking out on social issues. Most biopharma CEOs have been loath to alienate any customer group. This time around has been different, though.

Exec commentary sea change

“The expectation on leaders about knowing when, where and how to weigh in on [social] issues – the bar has been raised there,” said Alex Gorsky, former CEO of Johnson & Johnson, at last week’s Galien Forum in New York.

“You know, 10, 15 years ago, it would be if you’re a leader, ‘Keep your head down, don’t get involved,’” recalled Gorsky, who led J&J for nearly a decade before stepping down in early 2022. “Some people would criticize it now, saying, ‘That’s woke-ism.’ The reality is, business does touch so many aspects of society.”

Indeed, the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that most employees around the world want to see their corporate leaders take stands on such matters. That’s not to say that the prevailing debate about whether businesses should get involved in social issues is over, however. 

“ESG has become a political football and leaders fear being called a ‘woke CEO,’” former Merck CEO Ken Frazier said in a recent McKinsey interview. 

Frazier faced that fear head-on in 2017 when he withdrew from President Donald Trump’s business council over his belated critical response to the violent protests at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

Saying he was acting “as a matter of conscience,” Frazier won unanimous approval from Merck’s board to issue it as a company statement. While none of the other council members immediately jumped to his side, his disengagement ultimately earned him popular praise, a rarity for a pharma CEO. 

Following Frazier’s lead

Others appear to be taking a page out of his leadership playbook. 

Of the roughly 175 multinational companies (across all industries) that have spoken out, more than 75 have, in no uncertain terms, condemned Hamas’s terrorism, denounced antisemitism and the group’s brutal actions, as well as expressed support and solidarity with Israel and Jewish communities worldwide. 

That’s according to a list maintained by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the Yale management professor who heads the university’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute. The list, Sonnenfeld wrote, disproves the “prevailing media narrative that business leaders are missing this key moment for corporate social responsibility.” 

Other pharma execs say they were moved to shed their usual reticence by the shere brazenness of Hamas’ attack. 

The group’s targeting of innocent civilians included the reported torture of 80% of the October 7 victims by way of “mass rapes, binding, knifing and then torching people alive, the deaths of scores of toddlers, butchering infants before their parents’ eyes and dragging bodies naked through the streets of Gaza to cheering crowds,” Sonnenfeld noted.

“As leaders of Regeneron, we have avoided wading into areas beyond our realm of specific expertise,” acknowledged company CEO Len Schleifer and president George Yancopoulos. “Nevertheless, the recent actions of the terrorist organization Hamas demand that we speak out, as they are so antithetical to Regeneron’s goal to save lives and improve the health of people around the globe.”

Putting your money where your mouth is

Many of these life science CEOs are also pledging millions in financial support to assist with relief efforts. Other statements manifest in expressions of solidarity with Israel.

In a LinkedIn post of his own, Bayer CEO Bill Anderson wrote, “It has been devastating to see the violence of this weekend’s attacks on Israel. Acts of terror against civilians must be condemned in the strongest terms. We stand in solidarity with the people of Israel.”

Ditto for Global Blood Therapeutics CEO Ted Love, who expressed, “We unequivocally stand behind the Jewish people and all civilians in harm’s way and hope for a swift return of hostages, as well as de-escalation of the conflict.”

Still, other life science companies, in deference to those employees who have been directly affected, are prioritizing internal staff email blasts and meetings with employee groups versus press statements publicly announcing their solidarity. J&J was among that camp.

Whether external or internal, the strong stands are in stark contrast to the silence, ambiguity or criticism of Israel among the agency world, human rights organizations and institutions of higher education. Which makes the need to provide unequivocal moral clarity all the more urgent.

Acting as a moral beacon may not necessarily have been within the requisite skill set of those who work in the C-suite of a pharma or biotech company. However, speaking up on controversial social issues is what’s increasingly expected of them. 

“We represent employees who, by and large, represent society,” Gorsky added. “And there’s an expectation – and, I want to highlight, in the appropriate way and in an authentic way – for business leaders as well as businesses to participate, to engage in that discussion because that can actually help get to better outcomes overall.

“Being comfortable and finding that voice is important for leaders now and in the future.”