The Readout Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Moderna’s vaccine deal is a bargain or racket, depending on whom you ask

Last night, Moderna agreed to trade 100 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine for about $1.5 billion in federal money. That amounts to $15 a dose. Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna’s closest competitors, signed a similar deal that adds up to $19.50 a dose. And thus the government was able to negotiate a discount from Moderna, marking yet another victory for the free market.

Or you could look at it this way: NIH researchers played an integral role in inventing Moderna’s vaccine, and the federal government is paying for 100% of its development costs, which might amount to about $1 billion. That means trading $1.5 billion for actual doses is effectively paying Moderna twice. And thus the real cost is $2.5 billion, or $25 a dose, which is a premium to Pfizer’s vaccine and marks yet another victory for taxpayer-funded corporate welfare in the U.S.

Whether either of those takes is true is debatable, and, for better or worse, it’s a debate we’re going to hear for the next few months as we await definitive data on whether Moderna’s vaccine actually protects people from Covid-19.

Bristol Myers is spending $300 million to on clinical and corporate diversity

The killing of George Floyd and the resulting global focus on systemic racism drew a lot of statements from the world’s major drug companies. Bristol Myers Squibb is among the first to issue one with some sizable dollar figures attached.

Today Bristol Myers promised to spend $300 million over five years on a wide-ranging initiative to improve access to care for racial and ethnic minorities, boost clinical trial diversity, and make the company’s upper ranks less white and male. By 2022, the company expects to reach gender parity in its executive ranks and double the representation of Black and Hispanic employees among leadership. In addition, Bristol Myers has committed to spending $1 billion with what the company described as “Black and other diverse-owned businesses.”

It’s worth noting that the commitment works out to $60 million a year, which is 1.7% of Bristol Myers’s 2019 profits and about .2% of its annual revenue. It’s also worth noting that $300 million is a large number of dollars.

How the smart money thinks about neuroscience

A string of expensive disappointments has led major drug companies to largely abandon the field of neuroscience, leaving the high-risk, high-reward work to venture-backed startups. For investors, that presents huge opportunities for returns — provided you know how to place your bets.

STAT’s Kate Sheridan talked to some of biotech’s high-profile fund managers about discerning potential from pitfalls in the fast-moving space. The complexity of neuroscience has made it that much more complicated to evaluate a given company’s plan to treat Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, they said, and separating good ideas from bad ones can come down to the finer points of choosing animal models.

“It’s somewhat similar to the breadth of oncology,” said Adam Koppel, a managing director at Bain Capital Life Sciences. “Oncology is also cell growth and cell development going awry — but there, it’s different organ systems, leading to different types of disease with different outcomes.” In neuroscience, all that variation takes place in the brain.

Read more.

In Harris, Biden picks a running mate with ‘Big Pharma’ in her sights

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, announced Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his vice presidential pick yesterday, potentially elevating a vocal pharmaceutical industry critic into the No. 2 role in government. 

Harris, who sought the 2020 nomination herself, launched her presidential campaign with an aggressive proclamation about the drug industry: “Big pharmaceutical companies,” she said during her kickoff speech, “have unleashed an opioid crisis from the California coast to the mountains of West Virginia.” 

As senator and, previously, as California’s attorney general, Harris made the opioid crisis a bread-and-butter issue, joining a 2016 lawsuit against Indivior for misleading marketing. After joining the 2020 race, she followed up with an aggressive platform on drug prices: an international price index, threats to use “march-in” rights on drug industry intellectual property, and preventing drug companies from using advertising expenses as tax write-offs.

Russia is running a different kind of Covid-19 vaccine study

Earlier this month, there was a brief Internet tempest around the idea of distributing Covid-19 vaccines before they’ve completed rigorous testing for safety and efficacy. That’s a bad idea, the consensus went, because rigorous testing for safety and efficacy is important. 

As it turns out, authorities in Russia disagree.

Yesterday, the country approved an experimental vaccine for the novel coronavirus, becoming the first in the world to do so. Developed at the Gamaleya Center in Moscow, the vaccine has only completed Phase 1 and 2 trials, according to the Russian government, which promised to publish detailed results in the future. Those studies enrolled a cumulative 76 patients.

The reaction from vaccine experts was as you might expect, typified by Weill Cornell Medical College virologist John Moore, who told the New York Times “this is all beyond stupid.” Russia’s decision to flaunt conventional scientific wisdom could have dire consequences, but it also sets up an unplanned study of its own: While nations around the world await the results of large-scale vaccine trials, Russia may be injecting millions with an unproven medicine. A year or so from now, we’ll find out which path was wiser.

Covid-19 could be a glimpse at a dire future

The novel coronavirus outbreak is the worst infectious disease crisis in a century. But without better treatments for antibiotic-resistant bugs, its global death toll could become a new normal.

That’s according to a pair of antimicrobial experts who, writing in STAT, warn that the current pipeline of bug-killing drugs is alarmingly bare. And if the world doesn’t get its act together, drug-resistant bacteria and fungi will come to kill 10 million people per year by 2050.

The problem isn’t a lack of scientific savvy or willingness. Rather, the marketplace for novel antimicrobials is broken, making it impossible for researchers to secure the right funding, companies to find the proper incentives, and patients to get the drugs they desperately need.

Read more.

More reads

  • After the fire of Covid-19 infection is put out, embers of mental and neurological effects still smolder. (STAT)
  • Kodak insider makes well-timed stock gift of $116 million to religious charity he started. (Wall Street Journal)
  • STAT+ Conversations: How pharma is influencing the 2020 election. (STAT Plus)

Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


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