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Readout @ JPM

Join us tomorrow for a STAT@JPM event! BioNTech founders Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci will talk about Covid vaccines. A discussion of the week’s big news with STAT reporters will follow.

Unicorn down

As you endure J.P. Morgan’s umpteenth presentation from a private company extolling the disruptive future it inevitably has in store, spare a thought for Intarcia, the erstwhile unicorn now reduced to auctioning off lab equipment in the name of solvency.

China-based Luxin Venture Capital Group, one of Intarcia’s major investors, has written down its stake in the company to exactly zero dollars, STAT learned this week. Intarcia has not filed for bankruptcy, a spokesperson said, but it’s hosting an auction later this month in hopes of liquidating lab and office supplies and keeping the doors open.

It was a long way down to such dire straits for Intarcia, which raised more than $1.7 billion from investors on the promise of developing a tiny subdermal implant that could mete out treatments for diabetes, HIV, and autoimmune diseases. The company was once a JPM presenter, ahead of what was supposed to be a lucrative IPO. But the story came unglued in 2017, when the FDA rejected Intarcia’s application for approval, and continued to spiral in early 2020 when the agency said no for a second time.

Intarcia’s odds of prevailing on a third try look pretty long, making the company something of a cautionary tale in a biotech climate where valuations seem to move only upward.

Bayer — Bayer?! — is building quite the gene therapy team

In recent years, if you heard about Bayer, it was probably in relationship to its controversial and value-destroying purchase of Monsanto. If pharmaceutical wonks mention the German company, it’s as likely as anything to be around stories of the industry’s origins, or Bayer’s 120-year-old aspirin franchise.

But in recent months the company has been building a powerful team in gene therapy. On Tuesday, Bayer announced that Kathy High, the co-founder of Spark Therapeutics and the person who guided the development of Luxturna, the first approved gene therapy to the market, would join the company as president, therapeutics. She’s joining Bayer’s AskBio division, which is built around another gene therapy pioneer, Jude Samulski, whose work helped lead to, among other things, a gene therapy Pfizer is testing for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Bayer bought AskBio for $4 billion in October. When Bayer “came and said, we’re gonna leave you guys alone, I said, that’s it,” Samulski said of the sale at the time.

Covid has been lucrative for testing companies

Last year, few people at JPM had heard about the unusual new pneumonia that was infecting people in Wuhan. 

This year, though, the pandemic is all that people want to hear about from a handful of presenting companies. Over the last two days, testing companies’ CEOs have detailed for investors how the pandemic has led to millions in revenue for their companies, even when demand for other kinds of clinical tests fell off a cliff in early 2020.

“We’ve generated more than $1 billion from Covid-19,” said PerkinElmer CEO Prahlad Singh. Hologic’s diagnostics revenue was up more than 200% in 2020. “Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic represented a tailwind for our results,” said Qiagen’s CEO Thierry Bernard. 

Covid-19 testing will still be in high demand as vaccines roll out, executives speculated — but eventually, Hologic CEO Steve MacMillan said on Monday, “common sense would say to me that the market has got to tail off.” 

When and how sharply that happens is still an open question. Qiagen’s Tuesday presentation included a graph showing some demand for testing into 2023. LabCorp CEO Adam Schechter said “if it was this time next year, and you had a fever and you didn’t feel well, I think they’d probably still do a PCR test on you.”
“Of course we won’t need as many PCR tests. But I still think we’ll need them,” Schechter added.

In an interview with STAT, Francis deSouza, the chief executive of Illumina, said that the pandemic has “accelerated” the use of the company’s DNA sequencing in the development of drugs and vaccines, in monitoring new strains, and even, in some cases, in diagnostics.

Pfizer has a lot of money and it’s not afraid to spend it

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been commercially disastrous for much of American industry, but not so much for the companies that happen to sell the world’s most in-demand product, a vaccine for Covid-19. Pfizer, which co-developed such a vaccine with the German firm BioNTech, is looking ahead to a 2021 gilded by revenue it couldn’t have predicted this time last year, and that could put the bellwether drug maker in an acquisitive mood — no matter the cost.

“I don’t have an upper bound,” CEO Albert Bourla said of Pfizer’s price range. “And frankly we have the ability to basically do everything that exists out there, if we wanted to.”

The company is focused on things that fit within its therapeutic-area expertise and is biased toward drugs in the later stages of development. That would mean dealing with valuations that are “very challenging and very expensive,” Bourla said, “but us, if we believe in something, we are ready to pay the price so we can get it.”

Investors have naturally turned their eyes toward BioNTech, which, in addition to its Covid-19 work, is developing vaccines for the flu and an array of cancers. Buying its partner outright would be an expensive proposition — BioNTech commands a market value of about $25 billion — but as Bourla made quite clear, if Pfizer really wants something, there’s no sum too daunting to stand in its way.


Social media confirms “attending” JPM from your home doesn’t generate the same excitement as a trip to San Francisco.

There were only 186 tweets using the hashtag #JPM21 posted to Twitter on Sunday and Monday, according to Symplur, a health care data analytics service. Over the same two-day period last year, there were 601 tweets with the #JPM20 hashtag.

More reads

  • With durable monkey data, Verve selects its first CRISPR base editing treatment for human trials (STAT)
  • Vaccines soar, antibodies struggle as COVID-19 drugs become a business (Biopharma Dive)
  • Vir and Gilead team up for combination trial (Endpoints)
  • Novartis, Beigene partner to develop cancer drug (Reuters)

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


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