20
Mar
2020

Biotech Can Help the Most Vulnerable. Here’s Are a Few Ways

Rob Perez, chairman, Life Science Cares

There has never been a more important time for all of us to practice physical distancing. Our only chance to prevent our heroic women and men who work in healthcare from being overwhelmed is to STAY HOME, and remain physically separated. 

That being said, I submit that it is even more critical that we remain socially connected during what will likely be the most difficult year of our lives.

Life Science Cares has been a vehicle for the greater Boston life sciences community to help those around us who are impacted by poverty, since our start four years ago. It is also the way all of us can remain socially connected to our community, and provide assistance to those whose lives have been upended by COVID-19.

Life Science Cares is working to help people who have been impacted by this crisis in many ways, including:

1) LSC COVID-19 Response Fund

The most vulnerable among us are being hit the hardest by this virus. Our partners are on the front lines helping in numerous ways, such as:

  • Distributing food to students who are missing out on free lunch due to school closures;
  • Providing medical care to the homeless and giving them a bed when they are sick;
  • Ensuring learning continuity for students, and;
  • Helping families missing out on a paycheck to survive

Life Science Cares has launched the LSC COVID-19 Response Fund and are calling on you and your company to give generously and help us assist our partners in this fight. Through this fund, LSC will award flexible grants to our partners and others who are doing the best work to meet the emerging and shifting needs caused by this unprecedented outbreak.

As always with LSC donations, we are committed to transparency, and 100% of contributions to this fund will go to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our neighbors in need. LSC Board members cover all the administrative costs of our efforts so that we can make sure 100% of every dollar raised will go to those on the front lines of this fight. 

 

Please Donate Here

 

2) Fulfilling Specific Requests From Our Partners

We are in regular communications with our non-profit partners and, as is the LSC way, we will shape our response based on their needs and where gaps in support might arise.

In most instances, you can fulfill these needs from the comfort of your own home, by ordering through Amazon or sending in needed items you may have to spare. We are continuing to update our website (http://lifesciencecares.org/) as well as our social media pages with specific needs and volunteer opportunities, so please check back regularly to see how you and your family can pitch in.

3) Collaborate and Coordinate 

There are many terrific efforts going on in the community, and LSC is collaborating with other organizations to ensure our collective efforts will make the largest difference.

For example, our colleagues at MassBio have launched a campaign to gather critically needed materials for our hospitals that our life science companies may have and be able to donate. 

For more information on this life saving initiative, and to find out how to donate your equipment or supplies, see the link below.

 

Donate Supplies Here

 

I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this industry, which consists of some of the most caring, passionate people on the planet.

We all chose this industry because we want to help humanity by solving issues for patients impacted by disease. Several of our colleagues are working tirelessly on therapeutic and vaccine solutions that will, God willing, help save millions of lives.

For the rest of us who may not be working on medical solutions, there are still ways you can help. Whether it is through donating to Life Science Cares, or through fulfilling other needs in your own community, there has never been a more important time to remain connected, and to care actively!

Be well, and be safe.

Rob

19
Mar
2020

COVID-19 Response – the Roadmap Not Followed

Leora Schiff, principal, Altius Strategy Consulting

Public health is not sexy. Vaccines haven’t been a good business investment.

But what has become abundantly clear is that infectious disease preparedness can have a greater impact on morbidity and mortality than all the sexy innovative therapies combined.

We are looking down the barrel of a gun. We are about to get blown away by a pandemic as the virus spreads through our country unseen and hospitals brace themselves for an onslaught of cases for which they are woefully unprepared.

It is March 19, 2020 and the number of diagnosed cases in the US is now over 10,000.

How did we get here?

Could this situation have been avoided?

According to the President of the United States, “This blindsided the world.”

As I write this, I have been listening to the latest Task Force press conference and just heard President Trump say, “no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that we would need tens of thousands of ventilators.”

Unfortunately, that is false.

The Disastrous Response of the Federal Government

We are far enough into the current crisis that we have started seeing timelines related to the Trump Administration’s response – mostly timelines of the President’s misleading reassurance and false comments. However, the timeline really needs to start before the Trump inauguration – when the Obama administration gave the incoming team a walk-through of their planning scenarios for a worldwide pandemic.

Not only did the new administration fail to take this warning seriously, but they proceeded to dismantle key elements of the government’s preparedness infrastructure. The CDC and NIH have suffered from budget cuts, and the global health security team at the highest level of government – the National Security Council – was disbanded.

The New York Times, and others, have reported that CDC director Robert Redfield alerted his boss, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, of the coronavirus threat on January 3, 2020. Azar quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation, and elevated the issue in the West Wing, according to the NYT. But the series of actions that followed – particularly the diagnostic testing debacle — have left the country dangerously vulnerable.

The following timeline ties together government actions with the growing pandemic threat of COVID-19.

See Enlarged Covid Timeline

The most important shortcomings in the response are the lack of anticipation of a pandemic and the lack of a preparedness plan.

Ironically, this lack of preparedness was identified by the Department of Health and Human Services. From January through August of 2019, the department conducted exercises to simulate a government response to a pandemic in a scenario called “Crimson Contagion”. The exercises laid bare a lack of preparation and coordination, as well as confusion about who was in charge and what stockpiles of critical equipment existed.

These failings were compounded by:

  • The CDC’s decision to rely on its own testing capability following the discovery that the CDC kits produced faulty results
  • The President’s continuous downplaying of the situation, even as it clearly became more serious.
  • The continued foot-dragging on critical preparedness steps. In today’s press conference when asked about the federal government’s role in building up the critical hospital supplies needed for hospitals to manage COVID-19 infected patients, the President stated “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work…the federal government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

It is illuminating to consider another pandemic and how the prior administration handled it. It is tragic that the current administration chose not to use this example as a roadmap for its own response.

Pandemic Preparedness – The H1N1 Roadmap

At the time of the first case of H1N1 virus in 2009 (mistakenly called the swine flu – transmission did not involve pigs), the Obama Administration had a full-fledged pandemic response plan that mapped out government response activities at the international, federal, state and local levels.

As a result, the CDC began research to support vaccine development within a week of the first US case when only 2 US cases had been identified. The day that the US Secretary of Health and Human Services declared a Public Health Emergency, the CDC started shipping 25% of its stockpile of personal protective equipment, masks and ventilators to the states. The CDC began shipping test kits within 2 weeks of the initial case of H1N1. Within little more than a month, 40 states had validated and began operating their own H1N1 testing.

The full history of the US response to H1N1 is available on the CDC website.

See Enlarged H1N1 Timeline

Learning from the COVID-19 Pandemic

It is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to cause suffering and death on a worldwide scale that we can’t even imagine.

If there is any silver lining to take from this disaster it is that we have been shocked out of our complacency when it comes to pandemic preparedness. There is also a growing national appreciation for the importance of a strong federal infrastructure that can plan for and rapidly respond to such crises.

Leora Schiff is the Principal of Altius Strategy Consulting. She can be contacted at lschiff@altiusstrategy.com.

19
Mar
2020

Singapore: What We Can Learn From a High-risk Country’s Response to COVID19

Carolyn Ng, managing director, Vertex Ventures HC

I was born in Malaysia, but left my family for the promised land of Singapore at the age of 12 under a scholarship program known as the ASEAN program. I lived more than half my life in that country, and have long since become a Singaporean. I currently manage a major Singaporean life sciences VC fund from a San Francisco Bay Area office.

Since the first confirmed case was identified in Singapore 55 days ago, the country has done a remarkable job of containment and mitigation. As of this writing, there have only been 313 confirmed COVID19 cases in Singapore with no COVID-related deaths. Those are remarkably low numbers compared with South Korea, Italy, Iran and other countries.

While Singapore is bracing itself for a spike of cases (more on that later on), what has worked well thus far?

The Beginning

Having lived away from home since I was a child, I make it a point to return to Malaysia and Singapore every year for the Chinese New Year festivities in late January / early February. It makes my parents and family happy. It brings me joy, too.

This year was no different. My fiancé and I flew back to Singapore, and took a rental car across the border to Malaysia. We landed January 23. That was the day Wuhan city was locked down to curb the spread of what was then just called the “novel coronavirus.” That same day, Singapore reported its first confirmed case of the illness we now call COVID—19. The coronavirus was all over the news in the ensuing days. Fear and confusion about the virus loomed over our lunar new year festivities.

Three days later, when my family crossed the border from Johor Bahru, Malaysia to Singapore, things had changed. On January 26, after the first FOUR confirmed cases of COVID19, we were told that every single traveler entering Singapore by plane, by foot or by car will have his or her temperature taken.

Something You Should Know About us Singaporeans

Before I go any further, there is an interesting Singaporean concept I need to introduce to our readers: it is called “Kiasi.”

“Kiasi,” in Hokkien (a common dialect in multi-lingual Singapore), literally means “afraid of death.” Those familiar with the history of the country would understand why. Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia in the 1960s in the post-colonial times, and was left to fend for itself with no clean water supply and zero natural resources. It is no wonder that this mentality of “the need to survive,” or the “fear of death,” has been core to the survival and later on, the flourishing of this nation city.

And this national mentality has, despite its derogatory connotation with cowardice, served us particularly well in times of crisis. I remember vividly living through the dark days of SARS in 2003. We lost 33 precious lives out of the 238 confirmed cases. Many in the US and elsewhere might scoff: “33? Did you say 33? Does this small number matter?”

Yes, to a small nation with a “Kiasi” mentality, IT MATTERS. Ever since SARS, Singapore has become much more crisis-ready.  

Learning from our SARS experience: There Is No Time to Lose

The SARS experience, and, more importantly, the willingness to learn from the experience, is now paying off. The country is bracing itself now for the worst of COVID19 spread. Singapore is particularly vulnerable, given that it is one of the most densely populated city states in the world. with 5.6 million inhabitants in 278.6 square miles — about 25% more densely populated than San Francisco. It’s also one of the top destinations visited by tourists from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Given what we know about where the infection started, and how it spreads in densely populated spaces, Singapore is in a particularly vulnerable position.

In recent days, I had the opportunity to chat with a long-time friend, Dr. Jeremy Lim, co-director of Global Health at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at National University of Singapore (NUS). He and his colleagues are doing incredible work treating migrant workers pro bono at a non-profit clinic. Dr. Lim has been at the frontline of Singapore public health policies for most of his career.

He shared that Singapore’s multi-ministry COVID19 task force was formed BEFORE the country even had the first confirmed case. This decisiveness and strong political will in taking forceful actions have been key. Public health and top political leaders have been aligned since the start on a fast, systemwide effort to prevent a pandemic.

It is also noteworthy that the country, despite its dense population, has been able to control the COVID19 situation without a city/countrywide lockdown. While it remains to be seen if the city state can hold out much longer before taking that type of draconian action, it does warrant some attention to review what have worked well to date.

It is not that interesting nor helpful to list out every single measure in boring technical detail, so I would like to discuss them thematically instead:

1. Concerted Political Effort and High Level of Transparency

Instead of wasting precious time politicizing the issue, ignoring the issue, or pointing fingers at our neighbors who might or might not have started or worsened the COVID19 crisis, the Singaporean government focused since the early days on mounting a concerted effort with strong political will in ensuring its success.

For example, a 14-day quarantine in Singapore for those who have been suspected to have been exposed to the virus, is not a “we are advising you to stay at home and we think you most likely will” type of exercise. There are at least THREE daily spot checks done by video conferences at random hours every single day to ensure that households under quarantine are indeed staying at home. Punitive measures are taken against those who violate these quarantine rules. The government is not fooling around with this and the administration executes its plans with exceptional efficiency.

2. Transparency, Data availability, and Clear Communication

The government has been extremely transparent in the number of cases confirmed, with full details of the background of the patient, along with the source of the infection. The authorities took painstaking effort in contact tracing. Every single case is laid out clearly on this official website.

The country’s leadership consistently and clearly communicates directly with its citizens, and control local media outlets to carry public messaging of washing hands and social distancing. Singapore has always been under fire for the lack of freedom of speech, but in this crisis, it has helped to curtail the spread of misinformation in Singapore. It has also avoided the entire “this is serious” versus “this is just a flu” kind of public debate. The message is unmistakable to everyone — common folks must do what is socially right to curb the spread of the virus.

3. Strong Fiscal Support for Those Affected

The government was quick to decide that all patients, whether confirmed to be positive or negative, will not have to bear the cost of COVID19 testing. Hospital bills for all confirmed and suspected cases are to be footed by the Ministry of Health. Self-employed individuals who have to be quarantined at home even receive $100 per day from the government. Lastly, it was made a rule that employers are not allowed to deduct paid-time off from employees for their days spent in quarantine.

In times like this, these measures matter tremendously to the affected pool of population and also help contribute to compliance with the quarantine measures.

Even for those households who have not been infected, the government has distributed four face masks to every household. Hand sanitizers were also distributed to support those in need.

4. Strong Collaboration Between the Government and the Scientific Community

China shared the sequences of SARS-nCoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 — with the international scientific community on Jan. 11. Immediately, scientists at all the institutions of Singapore, private and public, were urged to work collaboratively on developing diagnostic tests, which were in dire need. By late January, Singapore-based Veredus Lab announced the development of its VereCoV detection kit. On March 3, Singapore’s Health Science Authority approved the provisional use of the test kit as an in-vitro diagnostic product. This effort was not done solely by the biotech company though, but as a collaborative effort between Veredus and a statutory board under Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs.

A research team in DUKE-NUS Medical School developed serological testing that was used for establishing links between COVID19 clusters. This test, based on virus-specific antibodies, has been used by Singapore for effective contact tracing.

There Have Been Mistakes

Not every system is perfect, and neither is Singapore’s. On Feb. 7 (with still only four confirmed cases), officials announced a national alert at the “Orange” level. Orange was the same level of alert triggered by the SARS pandemic, which so many citizens vividly remember.

The Feb. 7 announcement induced a panic, as citizens cleaned out the shelves of grocery markets overnight. This was neither the most gracious nor rational reaction. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to go on television to urge calm and to tell people that there is “no need to stock up with items such as instant noodles or toilet paper.”

As Jeremy Lim remarked, in hindsight, the upgrade to DORSCON Orange could probably have been better communicated to avoid public panic. 

Moreover, it is unknown whether Singapore is able to scale its healthcare infrastructure and workforce to cater for a “real” spike in COVID19 cases. Unfortunately, unlike China and other countries, Singapore has no hinterland or other provinces/states to draw resources from.

The Crisis Is Not “Over,” Not Even for Singapore

The Singapore government has just mentally prepared its people that numbers could remain high in the coming days, as more Singaporean students and workers return home because of lock downs in cities around the world.

In addition, in a dramatic turn of events, my birth country Malaysia just ordered a countrywide lock down on Mar. 18. This ruling has a severe impact on the 300,000 people living in Malaysia who commute across the border every day to work in Singapore. As a result, there was an insane rush of at least 100,000 people trying to cross the border into Singapore before midnight on Mar. 18. The Singaporean government is now working round the clock to find housing solutions for these 100,000 Malaysians who made it through the borders, with subsidies of $50 a day provided to them.

With this episode of mass border-crossing, it is only to be expected the country will experience a spike in COVID19 cases in days to come. Singapore has not had to impose national lock down so far, and although its containment measures have been reasonably successful, time will tell if this still holds.

I pray for my ENT doctor brother working at the front line in a hospital in East Malaysia, for those being affected back home in Singapore, and to my new beloved home the United States. We have lost precious time. We have to put all our political and ideological differences aside to get over this crisis together with swift and decisive actions.

Disclaimer:

This article expresses the personal views and perspectives of the author. The views and perspectives expressed here do not necessarily represent the views or perspectives of Vertex Ventures HC, or any officer, director, partner, member, manager or employee of Vertex Ventures HC, or any of its affiliated entities.

19
Mar
2020

The Biopharmaceutical Counterattack

Jeremy Levin

The latest contagious and deadly global virus, COVID-19, is invisibly sprinting across the world and across America.

As the crisis engulfs our nation, it has exposed failures to heed the warnings of experts that would have allowed us to arm ourselves for what we have long known to be this inevitable threat.

Worse yet, critical capacities that would have allowed us to wheel into action immediately were recently dismantled.

As a consequence, the pandemic has precipitated both medical and societal dislocation, the full impact of which we cannot yet measure and predict. While we know that COVID-19 has brought widespread fear and disruption and now death, less seen is that it has galvanized and united some of the best among us in common cause to defeat the virus and hopefully thereby save the lives of untold thousands. 

This is true across the board, from healthcare workers on the frontlines to academic and biopharmaceutical researchers. We are all in this together.

In our case, the biotechnology industry immediately stepped forward. Even while many of our employees were sent home to protect themselves, their colleagues and loved ones from infection, the strategic engine of biotechnology pivoted from our normal activities to launch a counterattack against the virus. 

Small and large companies have embarked upon an unprecedented effort to produce more effective diagnostics, to test existing therapeutics and develop novel vaccines and treatments. 

Each of us has ways to contribute that play to our strengths. A few larger companies, like Teva, have stepped forward to manufacture and donate large volumes of promising generic medicines. Others have begun to test approved patented medicines in new trials because that is their strength.

Smaller companies like Moderna are testing novel vaccines – an example of how small and nimble companies dominate this science. Nearly overnight, collaborative agreements have been struck between companies to develop additional innovative approaches such as that between Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Vir Biotechnology. On the diagnostic front, companies like QIAGEN and Roche are bringing their extensive production capability online.

These companies are staffed with researchers who hail from across the world. The coronavirus is undeterred by national border. And the dedicated scientists waging war against the pandemic – the best of the best – transcend borders and national interest to pool their knowledge, skills and commitment in the war against this spreading disease.

In this fight, critical discoveries are most likely to be made in countries where biotechnology has been nourished and has flourished because of market-based economics.

We will prevail against this deadly scourge. After we get through this, we must assess what went right and what we need to fix in the healthcare, pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical worlds. For today, we will focus on doing everything we can to save lives. We will develop diagnostics to quickly diagnose those infected with the virus. We will invent the therapies and treatments to help them recover, and we will develop vaccines to prevent the infection from hurting so many people again in the future.

I am proud to be a part of this industry. At a time of a crisis of medical need, the industry has risen to the occasion. As with the revolutions in gene therapy, cell therapy immune-oncology and curing Hepatitis C, we do amazing things to help patients. This is our mission, and it will always be our mission.

Even now – as Congress mobilizes to support our nation and passes much needed legislation – it’s important to remember that that mission can only continue if the engines that drive biotechnology innovation are encouraged to turn. We have built all of this tremendous capability, with assets in academia and industry, over the past 75 years. We must continue to support both sectors.

Industry relies on robust investment and the ability to protect its crucial intellectual property.  The public and the press should hold us accountable for our commitment to key principles of behavior and to call out excesses – such as egregiously high prices of certain medications. We must fix this problem. We, as leaders of industry, will condemn these violations of trust ourselves.

At the same time, government, the public and the media should all recognize and acknowledge the advances to the wellbeing of mankind that we make every day. Without America’s singular status as the world’s biomedical leader, the world will remain at the mercy of not only each new pandemic that crosses our borders, but of diseases that have plagued humans for millennia.

Our scientists will win this fight. Then, together we can continue to go about building a better healthcare system that ensures that the medical innovation brought to us by the scientists in our labs is affordably available to everyone.

Jeremy Levin is the CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and the chairman of the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

18
Mar
2020

8 Days Later: Italy vs. US

Otello Stampacchia, founder, Omega Funds

The following is an update to my article on March 10, also published on Timmerman Report. The initial article is available (free to read here).

Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank everybody who has reached out with comments / feedback after my first article. Thank you also for the outpouring of well wishes for my family in Italy. So far, they are all safe and sound (though increasingly going stir crazy from being locked up in their homes: you should really see the videos going around our family’s social media. They are hilarious).

So: it’s been a bit more than a week since that note of warning. Where are we now?

Unfortunately, the daily situation in Italy has continued to worsen: as I write, Italy has had more than 31,000 confirmed cases and over 2,500 fatalities. This is a Case Fatality Rate (CFR) of ~8%. If any more proof was needed, this is not the flu. China, where the outbreak began, has had a total of ~81,000 cases and ~3,100 deaths. Italy is quite likely to surpass China’s fatalities shortly (it has almost as many fatalities after 21 days as China did after 35). Note Italy has a population of ~60 million, compared with a Chinese population of ~1.5 billion.

Of course, China led the crisis response by initiating drastic social distancing measures and testing, followed by quarantines among those infected, very early on. These draconian actions probably did save a lot of lives.

As shown in the chart below (from the FT), other European countries (UK, France, Spain) are more or less tracking a similar path to Italy. The Spanish situation is even more dire than Italy at a comparable stage. It is to be hoped than the severe quarantine measures which have been put in place will contribute to “bending the curve” back to reduce the death toll. There is no time to lose if we want to preserve hospital and healthcare system infrastructure to adequately care for the 15-20 percent of those infected who require hospitalization.

Also from the chart above, the US seemed (at least at the beginning) to be following a very different curve from European countries, at least so far: it appears almost as benign as South Korea (which has had an exemplary response to the virus and has managed so far to contain the outbreak and limit the number of fatalities). As I write, the US has had ~6,500 confirmed cases, with ~116 fatalities, for a CFR of ~1.8%. Considering the US has had very limited testing capacity online to date, this is remarkable. Note, however, the curve seems to be steepening, not bending down.

I can almost hear your thoughts: this is not THAT bad! We are winning this! We are almost as good as South Korea! (I knew I did not have to study math in high school…). Why are we worrying about this virus so much AND shutting down the entire economy?? I do not want to be stuck at home with my children all day!

I will argue below that this is not necessarily the case. We are NOT “winning.” Again, I do hope I am wrong. Please bear with me as this becomes a bit wonky below (and yes, you should have studied math in high school).

We Are All Living in the Future

This is an important point.

I think I know most of the people who read this newsletter: you are living in the now, avidly watching today’s news. And I assume, as readers of the Timmerman Report, that you are well informed and are up to date with the zeitgeist. Good for you. Sorry to disappoint your own self-esteem, but that is not necessarily accurate for this situation.

To clarify: it takes ~17 days from initial infection to death on average. Fatalities we see TODAY are people who were infected more than two weeks ago.

Today’s news (and the increasing level of panic in financial markets, our own social networks, etc.) is based on the equivalent of the information coming from the light from a star (17 light-days away, ~3.6*1011 km, roughly 100x farther away than Pluto, you can make your own conversion in miles if it is important to you). It was sent out 17 days or so ago. That star might as well have exploded since and you will only find out in 17 days (and what a great sunburn that will be).

Therefore, to recap, the fatalities reported TODAY are a snapshot of infections that happened THEN, not NOW.

Since then, remember the virus spreads exponentially, with an R0 (a measure of infection spreading, no need to get into that now) that is very high without social distancing measures. The R0 can be moved in a lower, more manageable direction with aggressive social distancing. But the US did not put those type of strong interventions in place until recently. And as of this writing, they don’t extend to every geography in the country.

One consequence of us living in the future is that, even if you start immediate, radical social distancing measures right NOW, the number of infections and fatalities reported will continue to climb for those ~17 days. Italy’s fatalities have grown almost 10-fold since northern Italy begun its quarantine.

Testing is (VERY) Important: Asymptomatic Carriers Contribute Massively to Spread

Let me introduce you to the small town of Vo’, in Veneto, West of Venice (Italy, not California). The town was in one of the initial cluster of cases in Northern Italy, and is close to the University of Padova, where there happens to be a great virology department, led by Prof. Andrea Crisanti.

The town’s mayor, may the fates be always in his favor, decided to test EVERYBODY in the town (~3,300 people). He tested them TWICE, at a distance of 10 days. In the first round of tests, ~3% of the town (~88 people) was infected. Asymptomatic carriers were the majority of infections detected (50-75%, I cannot seem to nail that number down from my Italian sources). Everybody infected, including asymptomatic carriers, were isolated (including from their own families). In the second test, 10 days later, the number of people infected had gone down to 7 from 88 (these were new cases who somehow had gotten infected in the intervening period). Now the town is virus free.

An article recently published in Science (Li et al., Science March 16, 2020, DOI: 10.1126/science/abb3221), using Chinese data, also broadly corroborates this finding. According to that article, ~86% of infections are estimated to be undocumented prior to the Jan 23 travel restrictions put in place. Undocumented infections (which for all intents and purposes we can understand to be asymptomatic, though that is not a 100% accurate assumption) seem to have a transmission rate of as much as ~55% of documented infections. However, because of their much greater number, undocumented infections were the source of almost 80% of documented cases!

What this means is that huge numbers of people – for practical purposes, let’s assume almost everyone you could potentially come into contact with over the course of a day – could be spreading the disease without even displaying symptoms. 

This again validates the Chinese and South Korean approach of population-wide, massive rapid testing. Once cases are confirmed (and note that individuals are held in isolation away from hospitals and families, while tests are underway), the infected individuals are isolated (even if they aren’t displaying symptoms). Note that the information from Vo’, though on a small sample size, seems also to indicate that isolating infected individuals seems to prevent the disease from evolving into a severe state.

These experiences and data point to a very important lesson: there is a very direct trade-off between capability to perform lots of (rapid) tests and the need to impose radical social distancing to prevent healthcare system collapse. The more you frequently test AND isolate individuals infected (including asymptomatic spreaders), the lesser there is a need for radical social distancing.

Unfortunately, the U.S. did not heed this lesson from Korea (Japan did not perform extensive testing, but they did isolate their entire demographic of >70 year olds, thereby reducing the fatality rate so far). The lack of testing in the U.S. has contributed to possibly quite widespread community-based spreading.

The implications of this are very broad, particularly for the young demographic in the U.S. population (the U.S. skews young, see below): your partying and drinking in bars and restaurants during St. Patrick’s Day is not helping here. Stay home. One case, early in the outbreak, infects ~2.5 people on average (many, many more if in close physical contact like at bars, dance parties etc. I would not know personally, I am a terrible dancer, but so I am told). ONE SINGLE CASE, under those assumptions, can lead to ~244 more cases in one month. If you halve that transmission, by reducing social contact, that single case only infects 4 people in that month.

Now is a good time to teach young people about exponentials before letting them go out in the evening.

Viral Load is Also VERY Important for Disease Severity

The latest news from Italy is that ~9% of the fatalities are healthcare workers. This is tragic. These individuals have been working selflessly for weeks now in conditions akin to a World War II conflict zone, performing triage on patients, without adequate supply of protective equipment and often in isolation from their own families.

It also seems to point out that it matters how much of the virus you are exposed to when you are infected. These heroes on the frontlines are exposed to high virus titers for long periods of time.

It makes sense: the lesser the number of copies the virus has infected you with to begin with, the more it has to replicate (and the longer that takes) before it overwhelms your immune system. Logically, if fewer copies of virus enter the body in the first place, that gives the immune system more of a chance to adapt to the invader and mount a defense.

So: wash your hands. Stay home. ESPECIALLY stay away from people at risk (immune-compromised cancer patients, people with co-morbidities, etc.). The government needs to step up manufacturing of protective equipment for healthcare workers ASAP.

Social Structure & Demographics Makes a Difference

So back to the graph above. Yes, I hear you thinking: your graph (it is not “my” graph, but whatever) says we are doing better than the Italians so far. Almost as good as the Koreans! I thought we were winning (everybody likes winning, I get it) and you have not provided me with any counterfactual. Am done reading this!

My, what an impatient bunch. Go watch some less complicated news channels (lots of choices there) and then come back when you feel like you want to discuss complex issues. This is important.

Differences in social interactions and social networks seem to play a very important role early on in the epidemic, especially when coupled with different demographic structures (huge thanks to Prof. Moritz Kuhn at University of Bonn for publishing on this, I really invite you to read his stuff, he is on Twitter at @kuhnmo).  

Let’s start from the assumption that the virus was imported in Europe from mostly work-related travel. Different European countries are (very roughly) split in two categories: “A” countries, where grandparents do not live with their children and their grandchildren (France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany), and “B” countries (Italy, Spain) where there is a larger % of the population (close to 23% in Italy) in households with the three generations living together.

In “A” countries, the initial exposure of the elderly to the outbreak will be limited. This will lead to an increase in infections overall but with a reduced initial fatality rate (like we see now in Germany, and we saw earlier in France).

In “B” countries (sadly, Italy and Spain) the most at-risk demographics are exposed relatively early in the outbreak. This overwhelms hospitals sooner.

If I were to guess (remember, I am a recent guest to this country), the U.S. is an “A” country. So, I would assume that elderly demographics were less exposed early on at the population level.

In addition, the overall demographic skews much younger in the US. Have been trying to find graphs but I do have a day job. Trust me on this, Italy is overall a much older country (see all those monuments in Rome? Yes, current day Italians built those).

This factor probably helped reduce the initial fatality rate in the US. That is, until the epidemic has spread broadly enough that the cases reach more at-risk populations in the country.

This seems to explain the observation that infection growth rate (growth in nr of cases detected) in the US is actually higher than in Italy to date BUT fatalities are much lower to date (worryingly, starting to curve up).

When Hospitals are Overwhelmed, Fatalities Climb Rapidly

This is what worries me the most. See what is happening in Italy, Spain, look at the initial data from Indonesia, etc. etc.: all with CFRs exceeding 5-6%. As soon as hospital systems are overwhelmed, conditions resembling war zones start to apply and people who normally would have recovered in a healthy, functioning healthcare system are unfortunately not able to and perish.

We should not let that happen. Demographic and social structure have probably given us all a (short?) reprieve. Let’s use it productively.

 

Follow Otello Stampacchia on Twitter: @OtelloVC

This article expresses the personal views and perspectives of the author. The views and perspectives expressed here do not necessarily represent the views or perspectives of Omega Fund Management, LLC or any officer, director, partner, member, manager or employee of Omega Fund Management, LLC or any of its affiliated entities.

17
Mar
2020

Dangerous Shortages of Equipment: A Nurse’s View from the Front Lines of Pandemic

[Editor’s Note: this is a statement from a nurse in New York City who I spoke with earlier today. Her concerns about dangerous shortages of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers were echoed in an article today by Seattle physicians in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. The nurse wishes to remain anonymous.]

I am a registered nurse in an emergency department in New York City. 

As many of you may be starting to hear, there is already a catastrophic shortage of personal protective equipment available to first responders. We, the first responders, are needing the media to do anything they can to amplify and track this story as a vital service to your first responders and your community at large. 

Steps need to be taken immediately to massively ramp up the production of masks, gowns, suits, and eye covers. 

As this tsunami of COVID-19 patients begins to hit the hospitals, we are already having to re-use masks and gowns in ways that are probably unsafe. We do it knowing that it may be exacerbating the spread of the virus but also knowing that supplies of our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are dwindling. This situation has only just begun. A re-used mask feels less frightening than the prospect of no mask at all. It is impossible to fathom what is right in this situation. We are acutely aware that as we ourselves begin to fall ill, every healthcare provider who gets sick is one less team-member and possibly one less available bed. 

As we have learned with the COVID-19 testing debacle, the federal government appears to respond only to broad pressure from the media and the public. 

I would ask any media outlet to assign someone to track this particular story, because it’s going to be a big story, and we would rather it be told now than later. 

To the community: We have your backs, please have ours. Your social distancing will save our lives. We thank you for it. 

After a version of this warning about PPE shortages was made on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio, the live call-in guest, Dr. Irwin Redlener, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center and President Emeritus and co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund, said:

“To say I couldn’t agree with you more is putting it mildly. This is the big story right this second. The testing, fine, that was a complete incompetent disaster on the part of the federal government. And it’s still not fixed, by the way. But it will get fixed, I guess.

At some point, it’s kind of irrelevant. As we start getting tremendous increases in patients – we enter a whole other zone where we’re now worried about saving lives. I am deeply concerned about the health and safety of the people working in our hospitals.”

Listen here to The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

16
Mar
2020

The Value And Necessity Of Tinkering

David Shaywitz

This week, I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal a pair of books about the increasing use of experimentation by businesses and other organizations: Experimentation Works, by Harvard Business School professor Stefan Thomke, and The Power of Experiments, by Michael Luca and Max Bazerman, also of Harvard Business School. 

These books in some ways represent the sequel to one of my favorite books about experimentation (both its uses and limitations): Uncontrolled, by Jim Manzi (his recent TechTonics podcast here; additional useful links in show notes).

There are two related topics that I didn’t have the space to cover in the WSJ review, but which I thought would be of particular interest to the TR biopharma readership; both are connected to the necessity for, and value of tinkering.

Implementation Gap

A recurrent theme in of this column has been the challenge of implementation – the difficulty of ensuring a promising idea or technology finds meaningful real world expression.  We see a particularly striking instance in the history of experimentation, in a study that’s often cited as the first clinical trial: James Lind’s scurvy experiment, an example that’s cited in both books.

The year was 1747, and James Lind, a surgeon in the British Royal Navy, was desperately seeking a treatment for scurvy, a debilitating disease that killed an estimated 2 million sailors between 1500 and 1800, and which we now know is caused by vitamin C deficiency.  Lind selected 12 afflicted sailors, divided them into six pairs, and gave each pair a different dietary supplement – orange and lemons for one group, cider for another, seawater for a third.  The group receiving the citrus was protected from scurvy, leading to the inclusion of lemon juice in sailors’ daily rations – 50 years later. 

Why the delay?  As Thomke explains, Lind assumed his results reflected the acidity of the solution, and “tried to create a less perishable remedy by heating the citrus juice into a concentrate, which destroyed the vitamin C.”  

The dual lesson is Thomke’s throughline: experimentation can drive exceptional value for organizations, from the Royal Navy to Google, but it’s really hard to get right, and there are many opportunities to stumble along the way – especially when your conceptual model ostensibly explaining the results is uncertain or, as in this case, entirely incorrect.

For a more nuanced and fulfilling explanation of the experiment, and a deeper understanding of the historical context, check out two episodes of Dr. Adam Rodman’s unfailingly captivating “Bedside Rounds” podcast that tends to focus on the intersection of medicine, history, and culture: this episode, on the history of the randomized clinical trial, and this episode, focused on the four humors, especially relevant given that Lind attributed scurvy to an imbalance of humors, which influenced (for the worse) his interpretation of his data.

Incrementalism

The A/B experimentation discussed in both books isn’t meant to apply to all innovation – it “may not be the best way to evaluate a completely new product or a radically different business model,” I wrote, and can’t reliably anticipate or assess Clay Christensen-style disruptive innovation. 

That’s okay.  A remarkable amount of innovation and improved productivity stem not from an original innovation, but from all the work of front-line innovators seeking to make the product better – the “lead users” who von Hippel valorizes, practicing the “learning by doing” Bessen champions (see here and references therein).

A 2006 von Hippel paper, for example, revealed that 60% of novel indications for existing medications originated from practicing clinicians. (I suspect the percentage has subsequently gone down, since much of this exploration is now pursued more deliberately by the drugmakers themselves as part of a product’s so-called “life-cycle management.”) More generally, it’s been estimated 77% of economic growth is attributable to improvements in existing products.”

As I wrote in a 2011 tribute to incrementalism, it’s worthwhile to aim for revolutionary improvements – the polio vaccine is clearly much better than even the most refined iron lung — but:

“The unfortunate truth is that such revolutionary change is exceedingly rare, and I worry that in anticipating, expecting, and benchmarking our expectations against a magic bullet, we may be underestimating the value of incremental change, evolutionary advances that have nevertheless contributed in a significant and largely underappreciated way to our improved treatments of a range of ailments.”

Medicine, as a domain, is associated in the public mind with breakthrough innovations like antibiotics in World War II, yet it’s the less-heralded “incremental steps that produce sustained progress,” according to physician-author Atul Gawande, who Thomke cites. 

Incremental innovation is sometimes disparaged, wrongly, as nibbling around the edges.  People pursing such strategies are sometimes dismissed as excessively conservative, insufficiently bold.  But this critique ignores much of the history of where innovation actually comes from.

Among the most compelling examples of incremental innovation is the remarkable progress in pediatric leukemias, discussed with characteristic eloquence by pediatric cardiologist Darshak Sanghavi (now chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare & Retirement, the largest U.S. commercial Medicare program) in Slate in 2008.  “Between the early 1970s and the late 1990s,” he writes, “the long-term survival rate of children with leukemia skyrocketed from less than 20 percent to around 80 percent.” 

How?

“The leukemia doctors saved lives simply by refining the use of old-school drugs like doxorubicin and asparaginase. Over the course of almost a dozen clinical trials, they painstakingly varied the doses of these older drugs, evaluated the benefit of continuing chemotherapy in some kids who appeared to be in remission, and tested the benefit of injecting drugs directly into the spinal column. The doctors gradually learned what drug combinations, doses, and sites of injection worked best. And they kept at it. With each small innovation, survival rates crept forward a bit—a few percent here and there every couple of years—and over decades those persistent baby steps added up to a giant leap.”

Sanghavi notes that while “we’re far more likely to hear exaggerated tales of breakthrough new drugs… it’s the leukemia story that’s the historical norm.”  He cites a 70% reduction in the mortality of tuberculosis the occurred in the pre-antibiotic era, “due largely to careful studies of nutrition and hygiene,” and a 50% reduction in deaths from heart disease between 1980 and 2000, “almost entirely from the use of existing medicines and surgical treatments.” (You can listen to our recent Tech Tonics interview with Sanghavi here.)

Bottom line

We’re entranced by the idea of achieving medical progress through magic bullets, disruptive innovations that appear on the scene and immediately change everything.  The reality is that progress usually occurs far more gradually.  The effective implementation of potentially transformative technologies (whether citrus fruit or high-throughput DNA sequencing) can take a while to really figure out and become widely accepted.  A remarkable amount of improvement in human health can come from, and has come from, the deliberate tinkering, of inquisitive front-line providers, relentlessly focused on improving, increment by increment, the care of their patients.

14
Mar
2020

Life on the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Alex Harding, MD

The Massachusetts General Hospital COVID-19 Surge Clinic is a converted parking garage normally used as the ambulance bay for the Emergency Department. It is isolated from the rest of the ED by two sets of sliding glass doors and can only be accessed by badge.

The garage has blue fluorescent lights and no windows, making it impossible to tell day from night.

In a corner of the garage, I stand over a masked patient who is pale and subdued. I’m wearing a long yellow gown, a turquoise, cone-shaped N95 mask, and goggles. My hands are crossed in front of me so that I don’t touch anything by accident, and I fire questions at him.

“Have you had contact with someone who has COVID-19?”

“Have you had any contact with Biogen employees?”

“Do you have fever? Cough? Headache? Sore muscles?”

I feel sweat trickling down my back. My goggles are fogging up, indicating that there is a leak around my mask, and I open my mouth slightly, trying to form a better seal with the bridge of my nose. The mask makes it hard to breathe; I’ve felt like I’m slowly suffocating for the past 4 hours.

The patient answers “Yes” to many of my questions. I ask a nurse to swab his nose for COVID-19 and we give him IV fluids.

I learn later that he tested positive for COVID-19.

This has been my life over the past week, on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In retrospect, I realize that, given the globalization of our economy, an event like this pandemic was inevitable. Yet it still has come as a surprise to me and most of my colleagues. The past week has created a set of strong emotional responses here on the front line: confusion and frustration are certainly among them.

But the emotion that I’ve seen the most is fear. Fear of becoming ill, of passing that illness to family, fear of an impending surge in cases that overwhelms our hospital’s capacity to care for patients, fear that if the infection becomes widespread, we may need to ration care, fear of running out of protective equipment.

My biggest fear is the loss of other hospital staff. Doctors, nurses, and other caregivers who develop cold or flu symptoms are all getting tested for COVID-19. Aside from my concern for their own health, if these health care workers test positive for COVID-19 it means that they will be unavailable to see patients for at least 14 days. As the line of patients gets longer, our list of available caregivers is starting to dwindle.

The line of patients is getting longer fast. The volume of patients in the Surge Clinic has doubled almost every day for the past few days. This rate of increase seems to mirror the exponential growth in infections seen in other places affected by the virus. So I’m afraid that the hospital will see an overwhelming number of cases of COVID-19 and there won’t be enough healthy doctors and nurses to take care of everyone.

I mentioned frustration also. The biggest point of frustration is with the botched early response to this infection at the state and federal level. For the past several weeks, in my regular walk-in clinic at MGH, we were seeing patients who had clear risk factors and symptoms of COVID-19, but we were unable to test anyone. We saw patients coming directly from high-risk countries, with healthcare exposures, and with fever and cough, whom we could not test. For a long time, only patients who were sick enough to be admitted to the hospital as inpatients could get tested. I can’t help but think that some of those patients were in fact infected with COVID-19 and continued to spread the infection in the community.

Testing has improved over the past week or two but is still way below where it needs to be. Unless someone is coming in with specific exposures or risk factors (e.g., a healthcare worker), we are not testing them for COVID-19. Yet, we also know that the infection is spreading within the community and multiple confirmed cases have no known exposures. So, I have no doubt that we are sending patients with COVID-19 home without testing.

MGH is working as quickly as possible to develop an in-house COVID-19 test, which should be ready for use this week. I’m sure other institutions are creating their own tests also, in an effort to compensate for completely inadequate preparation and responsiveness at the national level.

So we’re frustrated that this catastrophe could have been kept under much better control if governmental leaders had taken faster action.

Confusion is also a prominent feeling. Guidance on COVID-19 testing, self-quarantine, and use of protective gear changes by the minute as the infection spreads. Masks and goggles become increasingly scarce. It is common to be told two or three different policies by different administrative leaders during the course of a shift. To some extent, this is a reflection that we are adapting quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. But it still adds to anxiety, as staff don’t know whom to believe or what policy to follow.

In spite of all this fear, frustration, and confusion, I am still grateful for my colleagues who are able to find a reason to smile or laugh. I can feel the esprit de corps growing as we all adjust to the new circumstances and prepare for what is going to be a long battle. The only way we’re going to get through this crisis is by working as a team and signing up for more than is expected of us.

For people outside of healthcare who want to help, my advice is to take immediate measures to avoid spreading the infection in the community.

You can no longer continue business as usual. Companies should advise employees to work from home. People who are sick should call before coming into the doctor. If you’re wondering whether you need to be tested for COVID-19, call before coming in. And if you are sick—whether or not you have been diagnosed with COVID—isolate yourself from other people. These measures will slow the spread of the virus. The healthcare infrastructure is being stretched. We need to bend the curve of infections to make sure it doesn’t snap.

UPDATE: 8:50 am ET Mar. 15. MGH is developing an internal qPCR test. Local biotech companies can help. See this list of kits and instruments that are in need.

12
Mar
2020

COVID-19: Collective Problem-Solving Time

The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks. Stunningly, millions of people in the US weren’t listening, or didn’t want to listen.

We have wasted precious time in defending ourselves against the coronavirus pandemic. The horrible news from Italy is slowly starting to sink in for us in the US, and other parts of the world.

Sports cancellations, a prime-time Presidential address, a stock market crash, and celebrity diagnoses have all come together in the last few days to grab the country by the throat. This virus has the makings  of the worst pandemic our generation has seen.

What was written here two weeks ago bears repeating:

It’s all-hands-on-deck time. Collective problem-solving time. Not every man for himself time. Not finger-pointing / blame-shifting time. Not cynical attention-grabbing time. Not “I told you so” time.

Half-measures like the ones we’ve seen from federal and state officials aren’t going to cut it. Much more aggressive action needs to be taken on social distancing – perhaps a nationwide shutdown of schools, or nationwide shutdown of non-essential air travel. Drive-thru Covid-19 testing with protected healthcare workers, like in South Korea, needs to sprout up everywhere in the US next week. High school gyms around the country may need to be commandeered to become isolation units for the infected.

To do something this massive and painful and disruptive, we have to focus honestly on the task at hand. We’re talking about potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives here in the US, and probably millions worldwide.

In moments of crisis like this, people find a way to reprioritize.

It can be done.

We have tremendous assets in the scientific enterprise. Research labs, for instance, can be temporarily transformed into Covid-19 medical testing facilities.

See this from the University of Washington:

 

I’m proud of the people in the Seattle scientific community who are meeting the challenge. I’m proud of the many people in the broader US biotech community who are stepping up.

It’s amazing what can be accomplished with talented people, strong leadership, and a clear and urgent mission.

Leaders of all organizations – this is your cue to re-think who you are, what you do, and how you can help.

As you think about where you can have maximum impact, refer to this list of stories and resources below.

Epidemiology

  • We’re Learning a Lot. It Will Help Us Assess Risk. STAT. Mar. 6. (Helen Branswell)
  • Harvard’s Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch: “I don’t think the virus can be stopped anymore.” Der Spiegel. Mar. 10. (Martin Schlak)
  • Seattle’s Patient Zero Spread Coronavirus Despite Ebola-Style Lockdown. Bloomberg News. Mar. 10. (Peter Robison, Dina Bass and Robert Langreth)
  • Mapping the Spread of a Deadly Disease. Vanity Fair. Mar. 11. (David Ewing Duncan)
  • Severe Shortage of Tests Blunts Response, Boston Doctors Say. Mar. 12. (Boston Globe)

Biology

Policy

  • Global Viral Outbreaks, Once Rare, Will Become More Common. WSJ. Mar. 6. (Jon Hilsenrath)
  • How Will Country Based Mitigation Measures Influence the Epidemic. The Lancet. Mar. 9 (Roy Anderson)
  • How Delays in Testing Set Back the US Response. NYT. Mar. 10. (Sheri Fink and Mike Baker)
  • Could Coronavirus Kill a Million Americans? Think Global Health. Mar. 10 (Tom Frieden)
  • Trump’s Mismanagement Helped Fuel Crisis. Politico. (Dan Diamond)
  • Joe Biden Already Sounds As If He’s President. Washington Post. Mar. 12. (Jennifer Rubin)

What We Can Do

  • Why You Must Act Now. Medium. Mar. 10 (Tomas Pueyo)
  • Five Easy Steps to Take During the Covid-19 Pandemic. LinkedIn. Mar. 2. (Dan Chen)
  • US is Past Containment, But We Can Mitigate. Q&A With Scott Gottlieb. Mar. 9. (USA Today Editorial Board)
  • How to Work from Home Without Losing Your Mind. Wired. Mar. 3. (Brian Barrett)
  • Cancel Everything. The Atlantic. Mar. 10. (Yascha Mounk)
  • Being Really Prepared. Bioethics.net. Mar. 9. (Art Caplan)
  • CDC Tells Americans Over 60 With Chronic Illnesses Like Diabetes to Stock Up and Prepare for Lengthy Stays at Home. CNBC. Mar. 9. (Dawn Kopecki)
  • Lessons from Italy. How the US Can Respond to the Urgent Threat. Timmerman Report. Mar. 10. (Otello Stampacchia)

Mobilization / Therapeutics

Mobilization / Diagnostic Testing

  • When Seattle Was Hit, This Lab was Ready to Start Testing. NPR. (Jon Hamilton)
  • The Race to Unravel the Biggest Outbreak in the US. Nature. (Amy Maxmen)
  • France-based bioMerieux announced the first of three tests it is developing for Covid-19.
  • LabCorp statement on Covid-19 testing, 5:30 pm ET, Mar. 12.
  • Quest Diagnostics statement, 5 pm ET, Mar. 10.

Humanity

  • Italian Doctor at the Heart of Illness Shares Chilling Coronavirus Thoughts. NY Post. Mar. 10. (Yaron Steinbuch)
  • She’s Been a Nurse for 10 Years. The Voice of Lasana Bridges in Tacoma, Wash. NYT. (Tammy Kim)

Who to Trust

  • Not His First Epidemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci Sticks to the Facts. NYT. (Denise Grady)
  • Covid-19. The Medium is the Message. The Lancet. (Laurie Garrett)

Responsible Leadership

Microsoft was quick to show leadership on the Covid-19 outbreak in its home state of Washington. In telling workers to stay home, it promptly did its part to #flattenthecurve. But it didn’t stop there. The company recognized the ripple effect that action would have on hourly wage earners who drive shuttles, staff company cafes etc – who would be losing their livelihood from the shutdown. Remember, capitalism has gotten itself into such a cold and cruel and dangerously individualistic place that we are having an election this year that in some ways amounts to almost a referendum on our economic system itself. Microsoft, recognizing a moral imperative to encourage sick workers to stay home, and to replace lost income for wage earners, was a couple steps ahead of political leaders who are re-assessing our tattered social safety net in this time of crisis. Companies would be wise to read Microsoft’s message.

Tweetworthy

If you hear someone say, “It’s Just the Flu” here’s a simple chart you can show.

Once people are snapped out of denial and complacency, then you can begin to present how individual actions can add up to make a profound difference. See #flattenthecurve

If people are still skeptical or unsure of the need for urgent action, then you can show what happens when a country doesn’t respond with speed and force.

 

And in other biotech news this week…

Clinical Data

BMS said it failed in a Phase III clinical trial of elotuzumab in combo with Revlimid/dexamethasone (Rev/dex) for newly diagnosed multiple myeloma patients.

Merck and AstraZeneca failed in a Phase III clinical trial of cediranib and olaparib (Lynparza) in platinum-sensitive, relapsed ovarian cancer patients.

Acceleron Pharma said it failed in a Phase II clinical trial with a drug candidate for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

Personnel File

Corcept Pharmaceuticals named Gregg Alton, the longtime former Gilead executive, to its board of directors.

Flexion Therapeutics hired Melissa Layman as chief commercial officer.

TScan Therapeutics added Doug Fambrough to its board of directors. He’s the CEO of Dicerna Pharmaceuticals.

Financings

Cambridge, Mass.-based Kymera Therapeutics raised $102 million in a Series C financing. Biotechnology Value Fund led. It’s working on drug designed to work via protein degradation. (See TR coverage of the Series A and original concept, October 2017).

San Francisco-based Nurix raised $120 million to support its targeted protein modulating drugs. Foresite Capital led.

Cambridge, Mass. and Netherlands-based Harbour Biomed raised $75 million in a Series B deal. It’s working on cancer and immune disorders.

GenFleet Therapeutics raised $80 million in a Series B financing. The China-based company is working on treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Seattle-based Silverback Therapeutics raised $78.5 million in a Series B financing to advance antibody-conjugate work against cancer. US Venture Partners led. 

Watertown, Mass.-based Kala Therapeutics, the developer of treatments for eye diseases, raised $126 million in a public offering.

Flagship Pioneering announced it has merged a couple of its companies into Repertoire Immune Medicines, a company working on cancer, autoimmune disease and infectious disease. It has raised $220 million combined. Former Bioverativ exec John Cox was hired as CEO.

Israel-based Compugen, a cancer immunotherapy company, raised $75 million in a public offering.

Boston-based Imara, a developer of sickle-cell disease therapies, raised $75 million in an IPO at $16 a share.

Deals

San Francisco-based Invitae agreed to acquire YouScript and Genelex and Diploid. YouScript helps clinicians decide what to do with genetic information. That deal was worth $79.3 million. Genelex offers pharmacogenetic testing. Deal value: $20.7 million. Diploid uses AI to assist with genetic diagnoses. That one was worth $95 million.

Bridge Biotherapeutics struck an AI drug discovery partnership to work on as many as 13 small molecule programs with Atomwise.

Regulatory Action

Boston-based Intarcia Therapeutics, for the second time, was unable to secure FDA clearance to start selling its drug-device combo treatment for diabetes.

Boehringer Ingelheim won FDA approval to market nintedanib (Ofev) for interstitial lung disease. The drug was first approved in 2014 for pulmonary fibrosis.

The FDA announced that two people have died, and four more are hospitalized, after getting stool transplants from OpenBiome

 

Personal Note: I’m working from home in Seattle — the heart of America’s uncontained Covid-19 outbreak. I’ve been social distancing since Feb. 29. Have spent a fair bit of time on the phone with family members in the Midwest, urging them to be cautious ahead of what’s to come.

Many of you – members of the biotech / biopharma community — are doing similar things for your families. If you have good ideas on things this we can do, let me know. luke@timmermanreport.com.

Stay well.

10
Mar
2020

Lessons from Italy: How the US Can Respond to the Urgent Coronavirus Threat

Otello Stampacchia, founder, Omega Funds

As background: I am Italian-born, and was raised in Italy. My entire family works and lives there, mostly in Milan or nearby areas. I have been communicating with family members about the noval coronavirus for the last month.

I have a PhD in Molecular Biology from Geneva, Switzerland, and I have been in biotechnology venture capital since the early 2000s. I live in Boston now.

The following is a personal account of what I think the lessons should be from the Italian situation, and their response, as well as what I think should be the immediate US response.

First, some facts (see graph below):

 

Cases started in Wuhan, China, probably late November / early Dec. 2019.

Reporting to the World Health Organization of cases of pneumonia, of unknown etiology, started on Dec. 31, 2019.

First death reported was on Jan 9, 2020.

First sequence of the 2019-nCOV virus was shared with the scientific community on Jan 12. The number of daily confirmed cases passed ~500 on Jan 16.

Wuhan City was shut down on Jan 23. Another 15 cities were shut down in China on Jan 24. WHO declared “a public health emergency of international concern” on Jan 30.

The first virus infection cases in Italy were confirmed on Jan 31, with two Chinese tourists (in Rome) positive for the virus.

It is unclear if the current outbreak in Italy derived from lack of containment of potential virus spread from those cases: on Feb 7, an Italian man repatriated back to Italy from Wuhan, China, was hospitalized and confirmed to be the third case in Italy.

A cluster of confirmed cases were detected later on. By Feb. 21, 16 cases were confirmed in Lombardy, in northern Italy. A day later, an additional 60 cases were reported. The first deaths in Italy were reported the same day.

As you all should know by now, the virus has an incubation time of roughly two weeks (with significant variability between individuals likely). The incubation time is defined as the time it takes between the day a person is infected, and the day that the person starts having symptoms of the disease. When people are suspected of having been in contact with the virus, it is highly recommended that they undergo quarantine for that two-week period, to limit infection spreading. 

By the beginning of March, 11 cities in northern Italy (all close to Lombardy) were placed under quarantine. By March 8, Italy had performed ~50,000 tests for the virus. Also on March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte extended the quarantine to all of Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces; this was extended to all of Italy just one day later — on March 9.

Some background on Italy and in particular Lombardy: this is the richest region in the country, with excellent healthcare infrastructure. Italy has ~3.2 hospital beds / 1,000 inhabitants (a higher proportion than the US). Doctors and healthcare professionals in general are well-trained and dedicated. There are no negative incentives to getting tested (and skipping work) early in the disease progression phases, like there are in the US. Italy has universal healthcare insurance and coronavirus tests were made widely available very early on.

The case fatality rate in Italy has also been extremely high: close to the Chinese numbers, of roughly 3-3.5% CFR rate. Much higher than Korea, which has implemented massive scale testing and extensive contact tracing and quarantine since very early on. Some of this high number in Italy might be an artifact of the relative lack of testing of asymptomatic carriers, some might be due to an aging population (Italy skews very old in its demographics, and the elderly are particularly susceptible to high level of morbidities and fatality with this virus). Some more might be related to social customs (Italians are an extremely social culture and congregate regularly in large groups with extensive physical contact: greetings are two kisses on the cheeks even with relative strangers).

What does “quarantine” mean? It means everybody is stuck at home. People who can, are working from home. Shopping is done online preferably: alternatively, one household member only at a time can go to shops. Shops are closed on weekends. No schools, no gyms, no cinemas, no restaurants unless they can guarantee a minimum distance of ~3 feet (damn Imperial measurement system) between customers. No concerts, no conferences, nothing. If you are leaving / driving somewhere, the police will stop you, and will ask for the reasons for your travel. If it is not justified (medical reasons, urgent work reasons), you will be indicted for violating the quarantine and reported to the courts. And these measures are being enforced (startlingly enough).

I have family members who have been stuck at home for days now and are literally going nuts. And they have a way to go (weeks, if not months).

Early on, I had the hardest time making my family understand how serious this was (I started pestering them more than four weeks ago to prepare). This is called “Social Distancing.” It feels undemocratic, excessive. We are not China! We are a vibrant democracy of individualists who like to go out every night!

Why is Italy now shutting down its entire country? With incalculable economic consequences (in a country already pretty much in recession)? For a virus with a likely case fatality rate of close to ~1% maybe? Are we insane?

No.

The country is, arguably belatedly, making a dry, cold calculation. The choice is the following: shutting down the country and preventing as much as possible fast spreading of the virus (“flatten the curve”) and in so doing limit its current, catastrophic impact on hospitals and caregivers; OR: continue life as usual and basically overwhelm the healthcare system.

 

What is happening to hospitals around Milan now (and it has been happening for days): ALL routine treatments / diagnostics, operating room procedures, even emergency procedures like trauma and strokes are being delayed / diverted to other centers to preserve what little capacity they have to treat virus patients. Virus patients with severe co-morbidities and/or over 65 years old are not being provided with ventilators: caregivers are triaging, like in a war zone, for people that have a possibility to recover and that they can save. ICU bed capacity has been nil for days.

Think of the implications. Caregivers are physically and emotionally exhausted. They were / are not being provided with protective gear: they are making mistakes. They are falling ill themselves. All doctors / nurses, of any specialties, are only caring for virus patients. More and more people will suffer fatal consequences of this. Not stopping as much as possible the spread of the virus is not an option. China and Korea did it. At great economic cost, for sure, but in so doing saved immeasurable number of lives.

I know what some (maybe most of you are thinking): Why should I change my way of life? This is overblown. It is like the flu. I am not in at-risk demographic.

It is not like the flu. There is no vaccine or natural immunity. The severity and fatality rate of the disease on the elderly and patients with co-morbidities is horrific (up to 18% of people over 70 years old seem to be fatally affected). Hospitals cannot possibly cope with hundreds of patients in intensive care, all at the same time. There are not enough beds, equipment, protective gear. By not contributing to reducing the spread / flattening the curve, even if you are not in an at-risk demographic, you are still contributing to spreading the virus.

So, what could / should the US do?

I personally think time for containment is over. A few hours ago, New Rochelle, New York was cordoned within a 1-mile radius by the National Guard. There were a few cases detected there days ago. Those people were infected ~2 weeks before that. There has been no extensive testing performed in the US at all for the last few weeks. Testing capacity is only coming up online now.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Implement radical measures of social distancing ASAP. No schools, universities, no concerts (sorry, but were we really still thinking about doing Coachella up until a day or so ago??). No restaurants unless appropriate distances between customers are enforced. Start asking everybody who can to work from home immediately. Elderly and other at-risk demographics should be isolated as much as possible. No contacts between kids and elderly people if at all possible.
  2. Increase as soon as possible (massively) testing capacity and manufacturing of protective gear for healthcare workers. Test as many people as possible.
  3. Start a program to help recall into service retired nurses / doctors. Create / speed up training programs for gig economy workers in non-at risk demographics to assist hospital infrastructure. [Update: 12:30 pm ET, Mar. 11. P.S. One of my suggestions was to start a program to recall into service all retired nurses and doctors. This may not be such a good idea after all, given the age susceptibility. The CEO of a large Cambridge-based biotech pointed out to me that a better option would be to recruit the entire cohort of medical school and nursing school students and give them crash training to provide back up support, perhaps offering retirement of their med/nursing school loans or to pay for the rest of their school costs as a reward. I agree.]
  4. Take care of the people who will be most hurt by this: gig economy workers, restaurant workers etc. etc. who all could lose their jobs and livelihoods if they do not show up to work even if feeling ill. We should provide some federal guarantee for sick pay during the emergency. Provide immediate country-wide insurance payment relief for testing / hospital visits. Perverse incentive systems will result in perverse outcomes. 
  5. Work with healthcare companies and ramp up / speed up regulatory paths to test new therapies / vaccines.

I hope to be wrong. I do. I fear I am not.

This needs to happen now. Looking at infection curves, the US is now where Italy was 11 days or so ago.

We have no time to lose. And may the fates look upon us with mercy.

 

Follow Otello Stampacchia on Twitter: @OtelloVC

This article expresses the personal views and perspectives of the author.  The views and perspectives expressed here do not necessarily represent the views or perspectives of Omega Fund Management, LLC or any officer, director, partner, member, manager or employee of Omega Fund Management, LLC or any of its affiliated entities.

9
Mar
2020

Our Tightly Networked World: Blessing and Curse

David Shaywitz

Technology has been hailed for its ability to connect us; we’ve tended to view this is a positive development, but as rare, high-impact events like the coronavirus epidemic reminds us, a densely-networked world may also be more fragile.

The mixed blessing of interconnectivity was acknowledged back in 2005 by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who observed:

“…we are now in the process of connecting all the knowledge pools in the world together. We’ve tasted some of the downsides of that in the way that Osama bin Laden has connected terrorist knowledge pools together through his Qaeda network, not to mention the work of teenage hackers spinning off more and more lethal computer viruses that affect us all. But the upside is that by connecting all these knowledge pools we are on the cusp of an incredible new era of innovation, an era that will be driven from left field and right field, from West and East and from North and South.” 

For techno-optimists like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, improved interconnectivity catalyzes what they call “recombinant innovation.” This is the idea that “the global digital network” enables us to “mix and remix ideas, both old and recent, in ways we never could before.” 

They continue:

“Digitization makes available massive bodies of data relevant to almost any situation, and this information can be infinitely reproduced and reused because it is non-rival.  As a result of these two forces, the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying as never before.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee add, “as the number of building blocks explode, the main difficulty is knowing which combinations of them will be valuable.”

Enabling promising ideas to be shared certainly sounds like a promising premise if the global community is collectively seeking cures for cancer or approaches to sustainability. But what about when the agenda is less benevolent? Increased connectivity enables members of hate groups to find each other and mobilize. It also helps autocrats gain and maintain power (see this New York Magazine article, “Facebook Used the Philippines to Test Free Internet. Then a Dictator Was Elected”).

While many technologists see a fundamental strength of technology as its ability to quickly reach global scale – Facebook, as I recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal book review, now connects about a third of the humans on our planet – huge scale is not an unalloyed good.  While 10 distinct communities may not benefit from the efficiencies that might be possible from a single large community, they would also not be as susceptible to rare but harmful events, so-called “black swans.”

As Nassim Taleb (who popularized this term and concept in his 2007 book, The Black Swan [my Wall Street Journal review here]) writes in his 2012 treatise, Antifragile:

“Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called ‘efficiency’ that makes people now sail too close to the wind….One problem somewhere can halt the entire project… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.  

And the information economy is the culprit.”

The risks of such rare, concerning events are of course especially on our minds today in the context of Covid-19. Taleb anticipated this in a supplemental essay he wrote for the paperback edition of The Black Swan when it appeared in 2010: “As we travel more on this planet, epidemics will be more acute—we will have a germ population dominated by a few numbers, and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively.”

Niall Ferguson (author The Square and the Tower, about the historical impact of networks) argues in a recent Wall Street Journal essay that you can’t understand epidemics without a sophisticated understanding of networks. “Standard epidemiological models,” he writes, “tend to understate the threat posed by a virus such as 2019-nCoV, because they don’t take account of the topology of the social networks that transmit it.” 

In particular, says Ferguson, traditional theories tend not to incorporate “the social-network hubs known as ‘superspreaders.’”

This is exactly the concern Taleb had originally articulated in The Black Swan. A fundamental property of networks, Taleb writes, is that:

“there is a concentration among a few nodes that serve as central connections.  Networks have a natural tendency to organize themselves around an extremely concentrated architecture: a few nodes are extremely connected [analogous to the superspreaders]; others barely so…. Concentration of this kind is not limited to the Internet; it appears in social life (a small number of people are connected to others), in electricity grids, in communications networks. This seems to make networks more robust: random insults to most parts of the network will not be consequential since they are likely to hit a poorly connected spot. But it also makes networks more vulnerable to Black Swans.”

It’s difficult to imagine that we are likely to return (willingly) to a less-networked world. But this also doesn’t mean we need to reflexively embrace every effort to expand and intensify our networks.

I suspect Taleb’s instincts may be right: large, taut networks promising efficiency in the short run may endanger us down the line, and we might do well to deliberately trade a measure of immediate convenience for more durable stability. Our challenge – both individually and collectively — is to figure out how best to achieve this trade-off, and learn how we can most effectively leverage the power and promise of networks without succumbing to their pronounced vulnerabilities.

9
Mar
2020

Living Life Fully with Stage 4 Lung Cancer: Isabella de le Houssaye on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Isabella de la Houssaye.

Isabella is a former attorney on Wall Street, a mother of five kids, and a terrific endurance athlete. She’s run marathons around the country, ultramarathons, and even completed an Ironman triathlon.

Isabella de la Houssaye

She’s also a Stage 4 lung cancer patient.

She owes her life, and her vitality, to some extraordinary advances we’ve seen in cancer biology. You can listen to her describe her molecular profile, and how that fortunately matched her up with a drug from AstraZeneca that worked wonders.

She’s now making the most of every day.

Some of you may have read about Isabella in the New York Times last year. The Times wrote about Isabella climbing Aconcagua — the highest peak in South America at 22,840 feet — with her daughter AFTER being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

If you haven’t read that story, I encourage you to go back and read it.

Seeing people like Isabella thrive is wonderful. Essentially she’s the living, breathing personification of everything I dream of through my charity work for the Climb to Fight Cancer at Fred Hutch.

Isabella’s now on a new mission. She’s bicycling across America to raise awareness for early diagnosis and better treatment for lung cancer patients. She will also be spreading the word about mindfulness and positive thinking, and how that has gotten her through some tough times.

You can follow her journey, starting in San Diego, at bikebreathebelieve.org.

As members of the biopharma industry, you get to go to work each day with people who have the capacity to extend life, and improve quality of life, for people like Isabella. It’s an amazing thing when it works.

I hope you find her story inspiring.

Now, please join me and Isabella de la Houssaye on The Long Run.

5
Mar
2020

COVID-19 Spreads in Seattle, Gilead’s $4.9B Cancer Bet, & Thermo Grabs Qiagen

Everywhere I look — to the North, South, East and West of my home office in Seattle — there are confirmed cases of Covid-19.

It’s one thing to read about a distant outbreak and intellectually understand the pandemic math, the morbidity and mortality rates, and responsible steps for containment and mitigation.

It’s another thing to live in the middle of an outbreak.

It’s stressful. I’m not worried about myself, my wife or my daughter. We’re healthy. I am worried about healthy people like us getting sick and transmitting the bug around the community, sickening and killing other people.

So, I’m practicing self-isolation and social distancing, as recommended by infectious disease experts at the WHO.

In case you’re wondering, Fred Hutch decided this week to postpone the Everest Base Camp Climb to Fight Cancer planned for Mar. 19-Apr. 4 in Nepal. This is a team expedition I’ve organized and worked hard on for eight months. We plan to do the trip in October instead. It’s the right thing to do. Fred Hutch, by the way, also imposed a mandatory work from home policy for non-essential employees, effective Mar. 5-31.

Why the drastic action, you might ask?

This bug is highly contagious. It’s transmitted in the community via asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic people – meaning people who don’t even realize they are spreading a dangerous bug to other people. It started circulating in the Seattle area, my hometown, for about six weeks before anyone knew.

We have little idea how many people are infected in the U.S., because of a slow, bungled response to diagnostic testing. Estimates are that the fatality rate is between 1 percent and 3.4 percent. The hospitalization rate is in the 15-20 percent range. We have no proven treatment or vaccine. We don’t have enough intensive-care unit beds, or respirators, to handle a massive influx of people with Covid-19.

Many people appear to be slow to appreciate the magnitude and urgency of the threat. Some are carrying on with business as usual – like holding a 100,000-person Emerald City Comic Con conference in Seattle within days. This is foolish and dangerous at a time Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a State of Emergency.

In all likelihood, Emerald City Comic Con will help speed up the spread of Covid-19 around the country. [Update: 9:09 am Mar. 7. Comic Con chose to postpone the event.]

We are just beginning to experience a tremendous stress test on our hospitals and public health system. One-fourth of the fire department in Kirkland, Wash. has gone into quarantine, and some have developed “flu like symptoms” after responding to help people at an infected nursing home.

Think about how many first-responders around the country are now at risk.

Take a look at this statement from a registered nurse at a Kaiser Permanente facility in Northern California:

Everyone needs to pull together to find a way to contribute – federal, state, local authorities, as well as academic scientists and private industry. As written in this space last week — it’s collective problem-solving time.

The biopharma industry – vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics companies and more – has tremendous resources to bring to bear against this challenge. People in this business have the brains, the resources, and the tenacity to step up. This is a moment for the scientific enterprise to show what it’s made of.

To help you stay on top of this fast-moving situation, I’ve curated a variety of important sources on Covid-19 from the past week, broken into topic areas.

COVID-19 Reading Summary

Epidemiology

  • China’s Cases of Covid-19 Are Finally Declining. It’s All About Speed, WHO Expert Says. Vox. (Julia Belluz)
  • Who is Getting Sick, and How Sick? STAT. (Sharon Begley)
  • Cryptic Transmission of Novel Coronavirus Revealed by Genomic Epidemiology. Bedford Lab blog. (Trevor Bedford)
  • Coronavirus May Have Spread in US for Weeks, Gene Sequencing Says. New York Times. (Sheri Fink and Mike Baker)

Policy

  • How to Respond to COVID19. And Prepare for the Next Epidemic. GatesNotes. (Bill Gates)
  • Key Missteps at CDC Have Set Back its Ability to Detect Spread of Coronavirus. ProPublica. (Caroline Chen et al)
  • Why the CDC Botched its Coronavirus Testing. Tech Review. (Neel Patel)
  • Protecting Americans From Infectious Disease Threats, Today and Tomorrow. The Hill. (Tom Frieden)
  • Helping Those Affected by Coronavirus. PhRMA blog. (Stephen Ubl)
  • Covid-19 May Have You Working at Home. WSJ. (Luciana Borio and Scott Gottlieb)
  • Science Will Get Us Out of This. Medium. (Brad Loncar)
  • Insurers Promise to Cover Coronavirus Tests, Relax Coverage Policies. Politico. (Susannah Luthi)

Biotech Response

  • Recruitment Begins for the First Test of Experimental Coronavirus Vaccine. WSJ. (Peter Loftus)
  • The Ebola Drug That’s the Top Hope for Coronavirus Treatment. Biopharma Dive. (Ned Pagliarulo)
  • Quest Diagnostics Will Start Testing for Coronavirus. CNBC. (Jessica Bursztynsky)
  • LabCorp to Make Coronavirus Test Available in US. Reuters.

Science

  • Open Peer-Review Platform for Covid-19 Preprints. Nature. (Michael Johansson & Daniela Saderi).
  • Bulk and Single-cell Transcriptomics Identify Tobacco-Use Disparity in Lung Gene Expression of ACE2, the receptor of 2019-nCov. PrePrints. (Guoshuai Cai)
  • The Effects of Evolutionary Adaptations on Spreading Processes in Complex Networks. PNAS. (Rashad Eletreby)

Communications

  • How Tony Fauci is Navigating the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Trump Era. Politico. (Sarah Owermohle)
  • Trump Tells FOX’s Sean Hannity that 3.4% Coronavirus Death Rate is False, Citing a ‘Hunch’ That WHO, Scientists are Wrong. USA Today. (David Jackson)
  • The Pandemic of Poor Communications. LinkedIn. (Gil Bashe)

Human Dimension

  • One Doctor’s Life on the Coronavirus Front Lines in China. ‘If We Fail, What Happens to You All?’. WSJ.

Tweetworthy

See this chart from the Bloom Lab at Fred Hutch. Those of you with family and friends in the elderly age bracket – this chart is a good reminder of the seriousness of Covid-19. It’s more deadly than flu, at least when looking at vulnerable elderly populations.

Also Tweetworthy

There was also a Super Tuesday election this week.

Joe Biden’s epic comeback was the story. Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation reminded folks that while the former vice president isn’t advocating for Medicare for All, he does plan to finish some of the unfinished business in the Affordable Care Act.


Deals

Gilead Sciences, the infectious disease powerhouse that has spent the last decade trying to diversify into other therapeutic areas, made another move in oncology. This week, it acquired Forty Seven, the company working to modify the “Don’t Eat Me” signal that cancer cells hijack to escape macrophages. Gilead agreed to pay $4.9 billion in cash to acquire the company, or $95.50 a share. Forty Seven is advancing drug candidates for myelodysplastic syndrome, acute myeloid leukemia, and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. (See Oct. 2015 TR coverage on the early movers in macrophage biology for cancer).

Thermo Fisher Scientific agreed to acquire Qiagen, the diagnostics company, for $11.5 billion. Whatever merger activities have to happen must now be secondary to an all-hands on deck approach to ramping up test capacity for Covid-19.

GlaxoSmithKline is apparently shopping around its antibiotics business, according to Bloomberg News. Maybe this isn’t the best time for pharma powerhouses to throw in the towel on infectious disease defenses, even when the market failures of the antibiotics space are well-documented. Someone needs to do this work, and that someone needs serious resources of the kind that companies like GSK can provide. Maybe you guys can tell your bankers to put that deal on the back burner?

Vir Biotechnology, the infectious disease drug developer, expanded its existing collaboration with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, the RNA interference drug developer, to use this powerful treatment modality against Covid-19. These companies have the key ingredients – the staff, the stuff, and the space, as they say in public health – to make some fast progress. They also have the cash in the bank necessary to turn their attention to this outbreak for a while without putting their companies at risk.

Financings

UK-based Immunocore, a company modifying T-cells for cancer and infectious disease, raised $130 million in a Series B financing. General Atlantic led.

Waltham, Mass.-based Akrevia Therapeutics raised $100.5 million in a Series B financing to advance its tumor-selective cancer immunotherapy programs. Takeda Ventures led. The company also changed its name to Xilio Therapeutics.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Amunix Pharmaceuticals, the developer of T-cell engaging antibodies and cytokine agents for cancer treatment, raised $73 million in a Series A financing. Omega Funds led.

Boston-based Akouos, a gene therapy for ear disorders company, raised $105 million in a Series B. Pivotal bioVenture Partners led. (See TR coverage of the $50 million Series A deal, August 2018). Vicki Sato and Heather Preston joined the board of directors.

Theravance Biopharma took on $400 million in debt financing due in 2033.

Personnel File

Cambridge, Mass.-based Unum Therapeutics laid off 60 percent of its workforce.

Unity Biotechnology, the company in Brisbane, Calif. seeking to extend healthy lifespan, named Anirvan Ghosh as CEO. He comes from Biogen, where he headed research and early development. Ghosh replaces Keith Leonard.

London-based Autolus said two top executives – Jim Faulkner and Neil Bell – are heading out the door, and being replaced by David Brochu and Vishal Mehta. The company is working on modified T cell therapies.

Regulatory Action

The FDA cleared Sanofi’s isatuximab-irfc (Sarclisa), in combination with pomalidomide and dexamethasone, for the treatment of relapsed patients with multiple myeloma. It’s a CD38 directed antibody.

The FDA said on Feb. 27 it is aware of a shortage of one human drug because its active pharmaceutical ingredient is made in China, and the Covid-19 outbreak has caused supply disruption.

European Union regulators cleared Alnylam’s givosiran (Givlaari) as a treatment for acute hepatic porphyria in adults and adolescents.

2
Mar
2020

Reconceiving the Value of Curative Therapies

Leora Schiff

I recently listened to Luke Timmerman’s excellent interview, Facing Up to a Political Crisis: BIO Chair Jeremy Levin on The Long Run. Levin spoke extensively about the existing crisis that the biotechnology industry is facing as a result of the public’s loss of trust in the industry.

His solution: companies need to focus on two core principles: innovation and getting innovative treatments to the patients who need them. Levin made the point that companies should focus, not on drug prices, but on demonstrating the value of our products in order to be able to deliver on these principles.

I completely agree. The only problem is the biotechnology industry has not had a great track record in doing this. It is getting better at it. However, there are structural hurdles in the way including the lack of the kinds of methodologies and data sets that we need in order to demonstrate comprehensively the full range of clinical, quality of life and health economic benefits that these innovative therapies provide.

For years I’ve been hearing complaints from people in the biopharm industry that their products don’t get credit for all the good that they do in terms of improving patient quality of life and productivity for society. Unfortunately, they haven’t had the data to back things up.

A Need for Cures

Last Friday, I attended MassBio’s Rare Disease Day. This annual event brings together rare disease patients and advocates and members of the MA biotech community to share successes, challenges and future directions. When I think of the patients who attend these events, they are the reason the biotech industry needs to focus on innovation and patient access.

Of the 7000 rare genetic disorders that have been identified to date, only a small number have any kind of treatment beyond symptom control and the management of health crises. However, technological advances including enzyme replacement therapy, RNA exon skipping and RNAi have improved the lives of many rare disease patients. Now, we’re on the cusp of a new age of potential cures.

Within the past couple of years, we have seen gene therapies for retinal dystrophy (Spark Therapeutics’ Luxturna), spinal muscular atrophy (Avexis / Novartis’ Zolgensma) and β-thalassemia (bluebird bio’s Zynteglo) reach the market. Between 30 to 60 new cell and gene therapies are projected to reach the market in the next ten years, with an estimated 350,000 patients receiving these treatments.

These are exciting times. However, with CAR-T therapies running roughly $400,000 and gene therapies at price tags of $1 million or more, this is going to be a shock to the system. If the price of the new therapies averaged out to a conservative $500,000, the cost of treating these patients would be $175 billion.

How can we possibly convince payers and society to pony up the money to cover these costs?

Reconceiving Value

When trying to assess a product’s value, QALYs are the measure that everybody loves to hate. Quality-adjusted life years are typical of any compromise approach – they capture all things poorly. Unfortunately, they are currently the best available measure of value that can be used to compare the apples and oranges of different treatments across the full spectrum of disease that payers face when making their coverage decisions.

For a while now, health economists have been wrestling with the issue of broadening the number of components evaluated in determining product value. In 2018, the Professional Society for Health Economics and Outcomes Research (ISPOR) put out a task force report that expanded the number of parameters of value beyond QALYs and budget impact to include:

  • productivity gains
  • adherence-improvement
  • reduction in uncertainty (if there’s a companion diagnostic)
  • fear of contagion for infectious diseases
  • insurance value (when baseline health is poor)
  • severity of disease
  • value of hope (when treatment results can’t be predicted)
  • real option-value (extending patient life so they can wait for new treatments to be discovered)
  • equity (fairness for all members of society)
  • scientific spillovers (new technology with applications to other indications)

But new value frameworks won’t be enough. We need methodologies for making appropriate measurements that everyone can agree to. Right now, we don’t have the robust methodological tools and stakeholder buy-in for this expanded value set to be put into action.

One More Factor for Our Expanded View of Value

I’d like to make a potentially controversial suggestion that an additional factor be taken into consideration when determining the value of products – financial toxicity.

“Financial toxicity” is a recent concept, but it has become increasingly familiar in current discussions of the costs of healthcare. First introduced into the literature by researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute in 2013, financial toxicity was described as “out-of-pocket expenses related to treatment. . . akin to physical toxicity, in that costs can diminish quality of life and impede delivery of the highest quality care.”

I suspect some of you reading this are starting to get concerned since the biopharma industry frequently has been attacked as the root cause of financial toxicity, but please hear me out. In the context of understanding the full value of the innovative products coming down the pike, this may be a much more important issue than you realize in making the value case for these new therapies.

We’ve all heard about cases of financial toxicity. Anecdotes abound in the lay press about how the skyrocketing costs of healthcare prevent patients from getting timely access to treatment, how patients cut back on essentials in order to afford their drugs or they cut back on their drugs to afford their essentials, how patients can be driven into bankruptcy by the cumulative costs of health insurance, medical care and drugs.

The stories are tragic. What is less clear is what the driving forces are of the financial stress on patients. It’s important to understand that disease-related patient costs go far beyond drugs and even direct medical care.

What I’ve Learned from Patient Advocates

Over the past year, I have had some amazing conversations with over a dozen rare disease patient advocates. Collectively, we have been trying to figure out how to gather data in order to get a handle on the impact of rare diseases on patients and their families.

These are some of the things I learned:

Patients with rare, degenerative disorders facing a lifetime of progressively greater, often life-threatening medical problems associated with huge financial costs. For these patients, costs will increase over time as they increasingly lose function, first requiring support to walk, then wheelchairs to get around and finally respirators just to breath.

The financial burden is not entirely attributable to direct medical costs. For these patients, many modifications need to be made to their homes in order to make things accessible or functional. They require physically supportive chairs and beds and modified cars or vans.  Special social services may be needed for education or financial and legal support. For patients who become agitated or who have poor muscle control, things often get broken and need to be replaced.

Once you picture these kinds of issues, it’s easy to see the ripple effect on families. For families, the burden of caring for a family member with one of these degenerative diseases may mean that one of the parents must work less or even give up their job completely. If they want someone to stay with their child, it’s not an issue of finding a babysitter. They need someone trained for the care of these patients. That’s expensive. Financial choices become difficult and families need to start making trade-offs. Money is often not available to save for college educations or retirement, or even to pay for basics.

In addition, caregivers of rare disease patients suffer health problems themselves because of the stress of trying to manage the impossible burden placed both on their child and on them. Divorce is common in families of rare disease patients, as the stresses of coping get beyond parents’ control. This can result with only a single caregiver struggling alone, or the separated parents having to duplicate costs of home caregiving across two homes. A diagnosis of a severe genetic disease can result in a negative prognosis not just for the patient, but for the entire family.

For patients fortunate enough to have available treatments for their rare disease, financial costs may still be burdensome. For treatments that are only disease-modifying or partially controlling (as in enzyme replacement therapies that fail to cross the blood-brain barrier and address the CNS impact of some diseases), progressive debilitation still occurs, albeit over a longer stretch of time, with associated medical and non-medical costs still occurring.

When it comes to managing the out-of-pocket costs of healthcare for these rare diseases, it is a case of haves and have-nots. For those with sufficient financial means and decent health insurance, or those with good state Medicaid coverage policies, this situation can be somewhat manageable. However, for those who fall between the cracks, the situation can be financially overwhelming and devastating. This includes patients who lack insurance or whose state Medicaid programs fail to provide the support they need.

The word among patient advocates is that there are “good” states and “bad” states when it comes to Medicaid policies and implementation.  Texas and Florida were specifically flagged as “bad” states with poor Medicaid support for rare disease patients. For patients in “bad” states who can manage it, many move to states with better Medicaid policies, so the “bad” states are effectively exporting the cost of caring for their rare disease patients to other states. Those who are left behind are just out of luck.

Financial Toxicity and Product Value

How does the issue of financial toxicity tie into our discussion of product value? I would argue – directly.

Imagine that a patient has a rare degenerative disorder with all the cost impacts described above. Now imagine a new cellular or gene therapy that can cure the disease before these costs ever happen. OK, we’re not sure that these treatments will eliminate the disease impact entirely or be durable but bear with me.

Assuming that these are curative therapies, they will have the following impact on families:

  • eliminate direct medical costs
  • eliminate non-medical costs
  • preserve their family’s social structure
  • increase the productivity of all family members
  • allow for savings towards future investments

In all, these cures will prevent the financial toxicity impact on the health and quality of life of patients and their families that was seen with the prior standard of care.

One of the biggest critiques of the healthcare system is the financial devastation patients and their families are subject to as a result of their care. If a treatment could do the opposite, preventing such financial devastation, the perceived value would be enormous and would go a long way to helping the biopharma industry regain the public trust.

Innovating Towards an Affordable, Sustainable Future

There’s only one catch – how will patients be able to afford these treatments?

If these new therapies are subject to hefty co-insurance requirements or onerous deductibles due to payer copay accumulator policies (that exclude payments from copay assistance programs from the calculation of deductibles or out-of-pocket caps), or if payers limit access to these therapies, then the potential for these treatments to eliminate financial toxicity will not be realized.

Many people in the healthcare industry have been trying to come up with innovative approaches to addressing the challenge of patient access to curative therapies. In many respects, reimbursement innovation is as important for the future of healthcare as any of the scientific innovations that companies are currently pursuing.

Over the past few years, biopharma companies and payers have entered into a number of value-based agreements (VBAs) that tie reimbursement amounts to drug performance, with manufacturers providing rebates if their drugs don’t meet specified outcome measures. In November, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals added a new twist to VBAs by adding a “prevalence-based adjustment” (PBA) which provides a rebate if the number of patients covered by the plan exceeds the projections based on epidemiological estimates (which are always problematic with ultra-rare diseases given the challenges with screening and diagnosis). The PBA provides payers with greater certainty in projecting costs in a way that is similar to the price-volume contracting used in France.

For gene therapies, companies such as Novartis and bluebird bio have been championing annuity approaches. Reimbursement for Novartis’ Zolgensma, priced at $2.12M, is based on an annuity plan of five more digestible payments of $425,000 starting with one upfront payment, the remainder being paid annually. For its β thalassemia therapy, Zynteglo, priced at 1.58M Euros (currently $1.72M),  bluebird bio went one step further with a combination annuity- / outcomes-based approach. In addition to the five payments of its annuity plan, bluebird’s VBA includes the provision that payers can stop payment if the gene therapy fails to meet its outcomes target.

These approaches are great for payers as they try to grapple with the cost and uncertainty associated with these innovative therapies. But what about the cost-impact on patients?

Manufacturers and payers have also been looking at the issue of how to shield patients from the costs of these therapies. When it began selling Luxturna, a gene therapy for an inherited form of retinal dystrophy, Spark Therapeutics decided to completely absorb patients’ out-of-pocket costs for treatment. For patients covered by commercial plans, Spark is paying for patients’ co-insurance for the treatment. In addition, Spark is providing support for all travel and other costs related to the treatment procedure so that “there should be zero cost to the patient for LUXTURNA and immediate follow-up care.”

Cigna, the health insurer, recently introduced Embarc Benefit Protection, a program whose goal is to help self-insured employers, unions and other payers cope with the costs of gene therapies and provide predictability in their budgets. Participating organizations pay a fixed monthly amount per beneficiary within their plans; in exchange, the program will completely cover the cost of gene therapies for its members. Under the Embarc program, patients will pay nothing for gene therapies covered by the program, although they may be responsible for associated medical costs. For 2020, the program will cover Luxturna and Zolgensma; additional therapies will be added in the future. While the details have yet to be firmed up, Cigna is targeting a fee of $1 per member per month.

In Closing

As a theoretical argument, the idea of innovative therapies being able to provide value by “curing” financial toxicity in addition to the diseases that are being treated is quite appealing. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

From a technical standpoint, “curative” technologies have to be true cures. We are still at the early stages of developing gene therapies. While trial results have been promising and the first of this generation of gene therapies are reaching the market, there are still critical questions regarding treatment durability, the extent of disease control, and safety issues associated with the different gene therapy vectors. It will be a while before we can say whether or not these gene therapies are truly “cures.”

I am an optimist – I think that these problems will be overcome with time. Just think of how long it took for the “magic bullet” of antibody therapy to evolve from promise to fully humanized monoclonal antibodies that have become a backbone of many treatment regimens. “One-and-done” gene therapies will likely need to go through a similar evolutionary process as the technology is successively refined, as well as our understanding of how to use these therapies.

From an evidence standpoint, data needs to be collected so we can compare the financial toxicity for populations of patients and their families before the introduction of a new therapy and afterward. We need to think about conducting studies I’m calling “natural histories of financial toxicity” along with natural histories of disease. This is something that I am currently working on and hope to provide an update report to TR sometime in the relatively near future.

The other innovation hurdle – reimbursement – may prove to be more challenging. While VBAs have been around for a decade, we are only now seeing the beginnings of reimbursement approaches that protect patients from treatment-associated cost exposure rather than crippling them with overwhelming cost burdens. However, I am optimistic about this as well. The healthcare industries collectively – manufacturers, payers, providers and other stakeholders – are among some of the smartest, most creative people on the planet. For the biopharma industry, innovation is in our DNA. We’re up to the challenge, if we set our minds to it.

Leora Schiff is the Principal of Altius Strategy Consulting. She can be contacted at lschiff@altiusstrategy.com.

An Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the patient advocates who have shared their time and insights with me over the past year. In the process, I have heard heartbreaking stories of the severe challenges that patients and families face, and the financial devastation that many families experience. I have also gotten to know more about the community of patient advocates and they have earned my deep respect. These are entrepreneurs in their own right – they are passionate, mission-driven, hard-working, and open to opportunities to advance their goal of improving patients’ and families’ lives. Most are also burdened with the care of their own family members, juggling caregiver responsibilities, jobs and their advocacy. Nonetheless, they work tirelessly to find solutions for their patient communities.

 

Patient AdvocateOrganization
Kathleen O’Sullivan-FortinALD Connect
Monika JonesBrain Recovery Project- Childhood Epilepsy Surgery Foundation
Monica WeldonBridge the Gap – Syngap – Education and Research Foundation
Heidi GrabenstatterCDKL5 Community
Vanessa Vogel -FarleyDup15q Alliance
Steve SilvestriEveryLife Foundation
Christian RubioGlobal Genes
Scotty SimsKCNQ2
Tracy Dixon-SalazarLennox-Gastaut Syndrome Foundation
Mindy CameronLittle Hercules Foundation
Megan O’BoylePhelan-McDermid Syndrome Foundation
Kristin AnthonyPTEN Foundation
Mary Anne MeskisThe Dravet Syndrome Foundation
Jamie CohenThe Dravet Syndrome Foundation
Dena HookTuberous Sclerosis (TS) Alliance
Kari RosbeckTuberous Sclerosis (TS) Alliance

 

27
Feb
2020

Gilead, Moderna Rise to the Occasion, Esperion Goes Back-to-Back, & Sangamo’s Big Neurology Deal

This week’s Frontpoints is a compilation of two weeks of deals, financings, and personnel moves.

To synthesize the main events of this eventful stretch, subscribers to Timmerman Report may read on.

Coronavirus Thoughts

If we learn one big lesson from this public health crisis, it should be that we need to continue to invest in our public agencies dedicated to science and public health – CDC, NIH and FDA, for starters. We also need to continue supporting, or at least avoid suffocating, the private biopharma industry that has so much capacity for lifesaving response. People on the street won’t appreciate it, but there’s extreme heavy lifting that only a big company like Gilead Sciences can do with its antiviral remdesivir. Same for Moderna’s lightning-fast turnaround of an mRNA vaccine candidate. Moderna was built to be nimble for situations exactly like this. We are also fortunate to have antibodies from San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnology at the ready for development. The only reason they are ready for testing in the capable hands of a serious startup is because VCs a few years ago saw a glaring need for more infectious disease drug development, and the potential to make decent returns. Fast, cheap, accurate diagnostics ought to be widely available, but aren’t. That’s just one of many weak spots in our defenses.

The main point: It’s all-hands-on-deck time. Collective problem-solving time. Not every man for himself time. Not finger-pointing / blame-shifting time. Not cynical attention-grabbing time. Not “I told you so” time.

Given the scientific, technological, and human capabilities at our disposal, we shouldn’t live in a world where front-line health workers lack cheap protective masks to treat infected people, and where your average local hospital doesn’t have simple kits to properly test people for the emerging bug. These things have to be fixed first, before moving on to more high-tech solutions.

The question that matters is – if you have relevant expertise, what are you and your organization doing to help solve this emerging public health problem, and to make us better prepared for the next one?

Regulatory Action

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Esperion Therapeutics, as expected, won back-to-back FDA approvals for its cholesterol-lowering medicine. The first, bempedoic acid, is being marketed under the name Nexletol. It’s priced at $10 a day for payers, and delivers an 18 percent lower placebo-corrected LDL count when given to patients already on moderate to high-dose generic statins. The next approval is a combo pill of bempedoic acid and ezetimibe (a generic medicine formerly marketed by Merck as Zetia). The new combo will be marketed as Nexlizet, at the same price of $10 a day. This one was shown to deliver a 38 percent lowering of LDL counts when given to patients on the maximum tolerated statin dose. Either way, these are once-daily oral pills that are priced to significantly undercut the injectable PCSK9 inhibitors on price (currently around $5,900 a year). Listen to Esperion CEO Tim Mayleben discuss the strategy in this episode of The Long Run podcast.

Summit, NJ-based Seqirus won FDA clearance to market an adjuvanted flu vaccine for folks 65 and older.

Denmark-based Lundbeck won FDA clearance to start selling eptinezumab (Vyepti) as a treatment for migraine prevention. This is the CGRP-ligand binding antibody that Lundbeck obtained through the $2 billion acquisition of Alder Biopharmaceuticals.

Deals

Brisbane, Calif.-based Sangamo Therapeutics received $350 million upfront as part of a gene therapy collaboration with Biogen on Alzheimer’s disease. Sangamo will get $125 million upfront in a license fee, plus $225 million in proceeds from an equity offering. In return, Biogen gets rights to co-develop zinc finger protein technology, delivered via AAV vectors, against a range of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Mallinckrodt agreed to settlement terms for its role in the opioid painkiller addiction crisis with a group supported by 47 state attorneys general. Under the deal, Mallinckrodt agreed to pay $1.6 billion over eight years, plus warrants to buy about 20 percent of the company’s outstanding shares. The parent company itself is being shielded from bankruptcy.

MD Anderson and Denali Therapeutics agreed to work on a research collaboration to look at four therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative diseases.

Bicycle Therapeutics struck a deal with Genentech to work on immuno-oncology drug candidates. Upfront payment: $30 million.

Germany-based Immatics pocketed $50 million upfront through a partnership with GSK to develop adoptive cell therapies directed against solid tumors.

Takeda Pharmaceuticals agreed to exercise its option to acquire PvP Biologics, a developer of a treatment for celiac disease that spun out of the David Baker lab at the University of Washington. The upfront payment was pre-negotiated and undisclosed. Total deal value, with milestones, is $330 million.

Worth a Read

  • Former CDC Director: A Coronavirus Pandemic is Inevitable. Here are 8 Things to Do Now. CNN. (Tom Frieden)
  • Statement on Belcher Pharmaceuticals’ Unjustified Price Increase. LinkedIn. (Doug Williams et al)
  • A New Drug Pricing Social Contract. Medium. (David Beier)
  • Access to Care May Explain Disparities in Prostate Cancer Outcomes. NYT. (Nicholas Bakalar)
  • Should ‘Broken’ Genes Be Fixed. My Daughter Changed the Way I Think About That Question. STAT. (Ethan Weiss)
  • Drop in Cancer Deaths Raises Questions About Our Society. Really. Boston Globe. (Peter Bach)
  • Sanofi to Start Pharmaceutical Ingredients Company, to Avert Future Shortages. STAT. (Matthew Herper)
  • Old Diseases, Other Public Health Threats Emerge in US. Washington Post. (Liz Szabo)
  • ‘Facebook, the Inside Story’. Book Review. WSJ. (David Shaywitz)
  • If DNA is Like Software, Can We Just Fix the Code? Tech Review. (Erika Check Hayden)

Annals of Manufacturing

San Francisco-based Audentes Therapeutics, the gene therapy company recently acquired by Astellas Pharma, announced plans to invest $100 million in a gene therapy manufacturing plant in North Carolina.

Financings

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Alladapt Immunotherapeutics raised $60 million in a Series C financing to develop treatments for food allergies. Gurnet Point Capital led.

San Francisco-based Spruce Biosciences raised $88 million in a Series B financing, co-led by Omega Funds and Abingworth. The company is working on congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

San Carlos, Calif.-based Q Bio raised $40 million in a Series B deal led by Andreesen Horowitz. The company is focused on preventive health.

BioXcel Therapeutics raised $64 million in a stock offering.

Israel-based NeoTX Therapeutics, a cancer immunotherapy company, raised $45 million in a Series C financing.

Enclear Therapies raised $10 million in a Series A deal to support a device-based approach for neurodegenerative diseases. 20/20 HealthCare Partners, Peter Thiel, and Amgen Ventures participated.

Deciphera Pharmaceuticals, a cancer drug developer in Waltham, Mass., raised $175 million in a stock offering.

San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience, the DNA synthesis company, raised $130 million in a stock offering.

Redwood City, Calif.-based Karius, a liquid biopsy company focused on infectious diseases, raised $165 million.

MPM Capital donated $2 million to the AACR Foundation, and $2 million to the UBS Optimus Foundation to support cancer care in emerging markets.

MPM Capital set up a new partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in which the academic center gets $26 million in basic science philanthropic support, and the VC firm is also setting up a $100 million early-stage oncology investment fund. Qualified investors who donated to the Dana Farber basic research fund were able to invest in the early stage venture fund. The venture fund expects to put half its money to work in startups that come from Dana Farber.

Passage Bio, a gene therapy company for CNS disorders, raised $216 million in an IPO priced at $18 a share.

Personnel File

  • Merck’s chief digital officer, Jim Scholefield, left to join Marriott.
  • Optinose hired Victor Clavelli as chief commercial officer. He’s formerly of Pfizer.
  • H3 Biomedicine hired Antonio Gualberto as chief medical officer. He was chief medical officer at Kura Oncology.
  • Verana Health hired Matthew Roe as chief medical officer. He’s a cardiologist and real-world evidence researcher from Duke University.
  • Turning Point Therapeutics hired Siegfried Reich as chief scientific officer.
  • Kallyope named Peter Hecht to its board of directors.
  • Sophia Genetics named Troy Cox as its new chairman of the board.
  • Margaret Anderson of Deloitte Consulting, Phyllis Campbell of JPMorgan Chase, and former Washington Gov. Gary Locke joined the board of the Allen Institute.
  • Gilead Sciences hired Michael Quigley as senior vice president of biology research. He was previously with Bristol-Myers Squibb in Redwood City. Linda Higgins was also promoted to be senior vice president and head of external innovation.
  • Adaptimmune hired Gavin Wood as chief financial officer.
  • Alnylam named former Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt to its board of directors. Co-founder Paul Schimmel of The Scripps Research Institute stepped down from the board.
  • BridgeBio Pharma named Ronald Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, to its board of directors.
  • Spark Therapeutics co-founder and president Kathy High left the company as it’s being integrated into Roche.

Tweetworthy

Maybe this will be the crisis that makes the US draw together and mobilize the way we can. We can so obviously do better than this, if we set our minds to it.

24
Feb
2020

Facing Up to a Political Crisis: BIO Chairman Jeremy Levin on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Jeremy Levin.

Jeremy Levin, chairman BIO; CEO, Ovid Therapeutics.

Jeremy is the chairman of the board at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. It’s his job to lead on advocating for the biotech industry in Washington DC.

This is the most perilous time ever to be the chairman of BIO.

Biotech and pharmaceuticals have become Public Enemy No. 1. Public approval ratings are in the single digits – worse than even Big Tobacco. People were angry with Martin Shkreli as the personification of pharma greed in the last presidential election – but they’re absolutely furious and demanding radical change to curb healthcare profiteering this time.

Kicking the can down the road, pointing fingers at the middlemen, ignoring bad actors in their midst, assuming everything would blow over in time — those political strategies from yesteryear didn’t work out so well for biotech.

Jeremy knows he must do better as BIO chair.

This interview was recorded Feb. 10 at the BIO CEO & Investor conference in New York. Jeremy spoke with me after he delivered an alarming State of the Industry message to executives and investors at the conference. He called it the best of times scientifically, and the worst of times politically. He warned not just of the threat of price controls from single-payer government healthcare plans, or from an international price indexing plan, but also about the threat of private insurance consolidation that could squeeze the profits out of drug development – a fate that has had terrible consequences for other industries.

Given the grave nature of this political moment, I decided not to discuss Jeremy’s personal background in this episode. To learn more about his personal backstory (which is fascinating), I recommend you listen to a previous interview Jeremy did on the Nature Biotechnology First Rounders podcast, in December 2016.

Now, please join me and Jeremy Levin on The Long Run.

18
Feb
2020

Techlash Offers Health And Tech Opportunity To Reset Relationship, Rediscover Mutual Respect

David Shaywitz

Technology companies are experiencing a staggering reversal of reputational (though not financial) fortune; their stature seems reduced with each successive news cycle.  Gone is the halo many tech companies once enjoyed.

The implicit (and often explicit) assumption that tech innovation inevitably makes the world a better place has been replaced by real concerns that the picture may be far more mixed, a skeptical reaction that’s been called the “techlash.” 

Profound privacy worries abound — not surprising, given that the underlying business model of several leading companies is hoovering up all your personal information and using these data to precisely target ads. While behavior modification has always been the goal of advertising, we are only just beginning to see what the world looks like when precision-targeted digital advertising (of products, political campaigns etc.) becomes strikingly effective at influencing individual and group behavior.  (If only precision medicine was nearly as effective!). 

The idea that we should aspire to measure everything everywhere about everyone all the time, as some digital transformers cheerfully advocate, seems an increasingly questionable goal. The surveillance aspects, we now understand, are overtly invasive, while the benefits to the surveilled seem uncertain at best. 

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled a lobbyist for Oracle with a knack for providing real-time demonstrations of just how much data Oracle rivals like Google routinely collect.  During one meeting with Australian regulators, according to the Journal, an official noted that the Google operating system on a phone “was running for 13 minutes while we had been meeting, and had talked to Google at least 418 times….Second by second sensor readings, going straight to Google.”

One can’t help but wonder: What are Google and other data-hungry companies doing with our information – and who else may be accessing it? 

The incredibly detailed information gathered by large tech companies enables them to sell precisely targeted ads. The ability they have to measure engagement so effectively makes it easier to iteratively optimize such messaging, an approach that has now become an important component of political campaigns.  Deepa Seetharaman, writing in the Journal, recently described how the Trump campaign learned how to leverage social media remarkably effectively in 2016 (this episode of The Journal podcast especially recommended), and a captivating Atlantic piece “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President” by McKay Coppins suggests these approaches will be an even larger factor in the 2020 campaign (as Coppins discusses in this episode of The Bulwark podcast).

While platforms selling ads clearly benefit by capturing rich data from apps and devices, the upside for users is debatable – even when users are the ones capturing the information for themselves. 

Consider the experience of many quantified selfers, such as former Wired editor Chris Anderson.  “After many years of self-tracking everything (activity, work, sleep),” he tweeted in 2016, “I’ve decided it’s ~pointless. No non-obvious lessons or incentives :(”.

We have also seen how technology, even where successful along some dimensions, can generate significant unanticipated consequences, including exacerbating problems they promised to solve.  One conspicuous example: ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft promised to reduce traffic burden, yet data suggest these apps have actually made traffic worse, according to fascinating recent article by Eliot Brown in the Journal. Brown also cites Facebook and Juul as other “solutions” that seem to have created serious new problems.

Hype, Disappointment, Resolution: All Part Of Tech Adoption Cycle

For those seeking to bring technology to health, the concerns surfaced by the techlash are not surprising, considering the historical arc of technology adoption, and need not staunch progress, if we respond thoughtfully rather than reflexively to these developments.

As Carlota Perez has described (see here), the path of novel technologies from initial emergence to widespread adoption seems to follow a predictable contour, which includes considerable hype and energy towards the start, as it becomes clear that there’s likely “something” to the technology but it’s not yet clear what this “something” is or might be. 

The British economist Christopher Freeman, in his introduction to Perez’s 2002 book, wrote, “the uncertainty which inevitably accompanies such revolutionary developments, means that many of the early expectations will be disappointed, leading to the collapse of bubbles created by financial speculation as well as technological euphoria or ‘irrational exuberance.’” 

In the Perez scheme, such disappointment regularly precedes the point at which the technology starts to become stably integrated in institutions and gains widespread acceptance, and it’s likely that we’ll see the same phenomenon with the application to healthcare of the four technology vectors entrepreneur Tom Siebel associates with digital transformation: cloud, big data, AI, and internet of things (IoT), as I recently discussed.

Arguably the best news about the increasingly pervasive concerns about technology is the grounded and often difficult dialog it forces about the range of consequences. In today’s more skeptical climate, it’s acceptable to view new technologies through a lens of healthy skepticism without being tarred as a mere “luddite,” a non-“it-getter,” and an exemplar of the sort of stodgy old-school thinking that’s about to be disrupted and displaced.

Needed: Authentic Mutual Respect

What we desperately need is authentic engagement between health and tech, from a position of mutual respect.  This theme has emerged from a number of recent conversations I’ve had, including just this past Friday, at a fireside chat I conducted in Philadelphia at the 2020 Wharton Health Care Conference with FDA Deputy Director Amy Abernethy, who has considerable experience bringing these worlds together – in academia, industry, and now government.

David Shaywitz in conversation with FDA deputy commissioner Amy Abernethy at the Wharton Healthcare Conference, Feb. 14, 2020.

My key takeaway from Abernethy – and others, including Recursion CEO Chris Gibson and Brandon Allgood, CTO of Numerate (now Integral Health) (the three of us discussed effective health/tech collaboration in January in San Francisco at a pre-JPM panel I moderated at the East/West CEO Conference), and J&J’s Sean Khozin (listen to our recent Tech Tonics podcast) – is the urgent need to get the working relationship between health talent and tech talent right, ideally by avoiding a “vendor mentality,” and ensuring the key stakeholders are on equal footing.

Getting health and tech experts collaborating effectively remains a critical stuck point for successful integration of health and technology – and arguably may represent an area where startups have a significant advantage.  Generally speaking, in tech companies, engineers are dominant, and many non-engineers, including physicians, tend to feel like second-class citizens; I hear this all the time from physicians and life-scientists connected with large tech companies, as well as tech-driven health startups. 

In many hospitals, the situation tends to be reversed, with physicians dominant in the hierarchy, and tech experts relegated to the role of service providers.  In pharma R&D, drug hunters and developers tend to rule the roost; the key data experts, statisticians, while acknowledged to be essential, are too often treated as service functions, called in to crunch numbers for sample size calculations, say, then sent back to their cubicles. (Of course there are exceptions, but this is the recurrent power dynamic I’ve seen throughout the industry.)

When one tribe is clearly dominant, it creates conditions that make it difficult to have thoughtful, dynamic back-and-forth between professionals of complementary skills. Without true mutual respect for what people bring to the table, it’s hard to imagine tackling effectively the highly complex problems at the nexus of health and tech. 

Solving this problem isn’t going to be easy, given the reluctance of those with power to relinquish it, but mutual authentic recognition of the value of both perspectives will go a long way. 

In our conversation at Wharton, Abernethy described an approach from Flatiron that she thought was effective: hackathons (internal software development competitions) where each team had to include not just programmers but also domain experts, whose knowledge was critical for success. 

The idea, more broadly, is that as people work together towards shared goals, their distinct skills become far more appreciated, and collaboration far more valued.  Right now, this is most apparent in startups (where the success of each person vitally depends upon everyone pulling in the same direction), while large organizations tend to be characterized by lip service to collaboration (especially when it’s a C-suite directive – see here, here), but intrinsic resistance to change, especially change that seems threatening or pointless.  From the perspective of many entrenched stakeholders in pharma and in healthcare systems, the change that “digital transformation” champions seems to offer a bit of both.

On the other hand, the folks I know in pharma R&D are there because they want to create impactful medicines to help patients; the people I know in care systems truly aspire to help patients. But all these experienced stakeholders – understandably — are very skeptical about grandiose promises; health and disease are inordinately complicated, and durably improving either drug discovery or care delivery is far more challenging than those outside these systems tend to recognize or acknowledge.  

Progress at the intersection of health and technology is achievable, but will also require established stakeholders and technology developers to collaborate effectively and respectfully, and evolve practical, tangible solutions.  As sociologist Robert Nisbet presciently wrote over a half century ago, “human beings do not come together to be together: they come to do something together.”  In this spirit, successful partnership between health and tech experts seems most likely to occur not just by co-locating such collaborators in a building or on a team, but rather, when the concerted engagement of both is required to accomplish something both meaningful and difficult.

I’m confident we will begin to see real success stories here – there are just too many real opportunities for just this sort of collaboration.  The interesting question is whether the biggest strides will come from legacy organizations that have managed to “digitally transform,” despite the huge political hurdles, or from startups that have managed to achieve traction despite the lack of legacy relationships and established capabilities. I would love to see both – and at this point, would be happy to see either.