Eli Hurvitz, who built Israeli generic-drug giant, dies at 79

November 22, 2011

Eli Hurvitz, who built the Israeli-based pharmaceutical company Teva into the world’s largest producer of generic drugs and made health care more affordable to millions of people, died Nov. 21 at a hospital near Tel Aviv. He was 79.

A Teva spokeswoman, Denise Bradley, wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Hurvitz had cancer.

Mr. Hurvitz began working in the prescription drug industry in the 1950s for the Israeli firm Assia. At the time, he had little experience in the field.

“When I arrived at Assia’s pharmaceutical plant, I was asked what I could do. In fact, I knew nothing except how to drive the tractor,” Mr. Hurvitz once said. “I was asked if I knew how to wash dishes, and I said yes, so I was hired to wash laboratory equipment.”

Mr. Hurvitz served as chief executive and president of Assia’s successor company, Teva, from 1977 to 2002.

Under Mr. Hurvitz’s management, Teva (“nature” in Hebrew) grew from a small maker of generic drugs to a global conglomerate that manufactures 63 billion drug tablets a year. In 2010, Teva’s sales exceeded $16 billion.

One out of every six prescriptions written in the United States each year are for Teva drugs, including pills that treat high blood pressure, diabetes, schizophrenia, arthritis, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Teva’s Copaxone, the first Israeli drug approved by the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is a leading treatment for multiple sclerosis. Teva is the world’s top manufacturer of affordable painkillers and antidepressants.

The company supplies more prescription drugs to U.S. patients than Pfizer, Merck and Novartis combined.

According to company profiles, much of Teva’s success was owed to Mr. Hurvtiz’s aggressive expansion. In the early 1980s, he risked entering the U.S. market when generics were still in their infancy. His timing was impeccable.

The Hatch-Waxman Act, passed in 1984, offered generic drugmakers incentives to produce low-cost alternatives to brand-name drugs once their patents expired. The legislation proved a boon for Teva, which had perfected its manufacturing of generics in the 1960s, when Arab trade boycotts forced Israeli pharmaceutical companies to produce copies of brand-name drugs.

“I used to say that we should thank God for bringing us the Arab boycott,” Mr. Hurvitz said in 2004. “Without it, our company wouldn’t exist.”

Teva partnered with the New York-based chemicals firm W.R. Grace to make a variety of generic drugs through a venture called TAG Pharmaceuticals. Teva later bought Grace’s interest in TAG.

Tailored to be chemically identical to their brand-name counterparts, generics such as those made by Teva now make up about 75 percent of all prescriptions filled in the United States.

A study by IMS Health, a research group, showed that generics saved the U.S. health-care system $734 billion from 1999 to 2008, according to a 2010 New York Times article.

In addition to expanding Teva’s U.S. profile, Mr. Hurvitz spent tens of billions of dollars acquiring drug businesses around the globe, including companies in France, Hungary and the Netherlands.

In 2002, Mr. Hurvitz became chairman of Teva’s board of directors. He retired in 2010, citing health issues.

Eli Hurvitz was born April 20, 1932, in Jerusalem in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. He grew up in Tel Aviv, served in the Israeli army during the 1947 war of independence and was a 1957 economics graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Mr. Hurvitz married Dalia Salomon, whose grandfather co-founded a Teva predecessor. Besides his wife of 58 years, survivors include three children.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.