The Readout Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

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What it’s like to do biotech research in pandemic

In states where coronavirus has hit the hardest, the majority of workers have been ordered to stay home. But for the biotech employees who run labs or manufacture drugs, that’s not an option, leaving companies to take extraordinary measures to keep workers safe without interrupting essential tasks.

As STAT’s Rebecca Robbins and Kate Sheridan report, the outbreak means biopharma workers have to risk infection on public transportation and adopt new precautions to keep things running. Like grocery store employees and pharmacists, their work is deemed essential under the stay-at-home rules in the industry hubs of California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

But deciding which projects can be paused and which are worth the risk to continue is hardly straightforward, and companies have adopted varying approaches as the outbreak persists.

Read more.

Gilead doesn’t want special treatment after all

In perhaps the briefest scandal in recent drug industry history, Gilead Sciences decided it didn’t in fact want an extended monopoly on its in-development treatment for Covid-19, ending a controversy that began way back on Tuesday.

As STAT’s Ed Silverman reports, Gilead asked the FDA to revoke the orphan drug designation it had just granted to remdesivir, an intravenous treatment now in clinical trials around the world. That designation would have allowed Gilead to block generic competition for seven years instead of the usual five, assuming remdesivir is eventually approved. The prospect was worrisome to more than a few public health advocates, who worried Gilead would use the special status to profiteer on a crisis.

Gilead’s quick decision means this will all probably be lost to history, but it offers a preview of the conversations to come. If remdesivir proves effective — which we might find out in the coming months — whatever Gilead chooses to charge for it will almost certainly bring the same scrutiny, concern, and condemnation we saw in this week’s micro-scandal.

Read more.

Despite the outbreak, the ATM’s still open for small biotechs

There’s a time-honored tradition in biotech: release good news in the morning, watch the stock price rise, and then raise cash by selling shares before sunset. And while the coronavirus pandemic has tanked markets, it has also spurred a new spin on that old money-making method.

As STAT’s Adam Feuerstein points out, Cel-Sci and Hoth Therapeutics, two small-cap biotechs, put out press releases this week saying they were getting to work on medicines for coronavirus. Each saw its market value go up, and each followed the announcement with a deal to trade shares for cash. Combined, the two companies will bank $11 million as a result.

That all comes from Adam’s regular column on how the pandemic is affecting the business of biotech, which includes a poll of investor sentiment, a word from a CEO, and an update on earnings.

Read more.

Sports are suspended but VC fights are here to entertain us

We’ve talked a lot about the mini-schism between biotech venture capitalists and their tech counterparts, something that often comes to a boil when the latter group starts talking about science on the Internet. Most of the time that dynamic results in subtweets and half-joking barbs followed by everyone agreeing to work together in the name of helping patients.

At least that was true until this week, when a Twitter debate between two VCs led to allegations of jealousy, stupidity, and “literally killing people [with] your tweets.”

It all started when Keith Rabois, a partner at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, took issue with the notion that there is only “scant” evidence supporting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for pneumonia stemming from the novel coronavirus. Zach Weinberg, an angel investor who co-founded Flatiron Health, chimed in to note that, despite early excitement, hydroxychloroquine just failed to show a benefit in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Then Rabois replied to say “randomized controls are horrible ideas,” and everything got a little unhinged.

By the end, Weinberg had dubbed Rabois perhaps “the dumbest, most overconfident” VC in the country. Rabois had called him “jealous” and “insecure” before blocking him. And, in keeping with virtually all arguments on the Internet, no one’s mind was changed.

Does any of this matter when it comes to the serious issues of coronavirus mortality, drug development during an outbreak, and the future of science? Probably not, no. But it was pretty entertaining, and entertainment can be hard to come by right now.

More reads

  • Vir Biotechnology reports early progress in antibody treatment for Covid-19. (STAT)
  • Covid-19 needs a Manhattan Project. (Science)
  • Biotech stocks are down, but optimistic investors see opportunities ahead. (STAT Plus)
  • Covid-19 is scary. A CRISPR-made pandemic could be scarier. (STAT)

Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Thursday, March 26, 2020


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