Robert Nelsen (Illustration by Emma Kumer for Endpoints News)

Af­ter Big Phar­ma aban­doned in­fec­tious dis­eases, 5 biotech con­trar­i­ans de­cid­ed to go all in. Then Covid-19 changed every­thing

Bob Nelsen had been quietly wondering how to eradicate viruses for years, before one day in 2015, he welcomed a pair of immunologists into the ARCH Venture Partners offices on the 34th floor of Seattle’s Wells Fargo Building.

Louis Picker and Klaus Früh, professors at Oregon Health & Science University, had by then spent 5 years running around the country in search of funding for their startup, TomegaVax, and Früh, at least, was nearing wit’s end. The Gates Foundation was interested but told them they needed other investors. Investors told them to come back with more data, pharmaceutical executives said they’re in the wrong game — too little money to be made fighting infectious disease. Still, a well-connected board member named Bob More landed them a meeting with the coveted venture capitalist, and so, in a narrow conference room overlooking the Puget Sound, Picker prepared to again explain the idea he had spent 15 years on: re-engineering a benign microbe into the first vaccines for HIV and better ones for hepatitis and tuberculosis.

“This lightbulb went on his head,” Picker recalled in a recent interview. “Most of them just didn’t get it. And Bob’s hit.”

By that point, Nelsen was more than just a venture capitalist. Scraggly and greying but no less opinionated at 52, he was mobbed at biotech conferences, having earned a reputation for crass wisdom and uncanny foresight, for making big bets on big ideas that changed medicine. Those ideas included DNA sequencing, which he first cut a check for in the 90s, and leveraging the immune system to tackle cancer. He earned millions making billion-dollar companies.

Yet for years he had harbored an almost singular obsession: “I hate viruses,” he told Forbes in 2016. He told me he was “pissed off” at them. The obsession drove him to his first biotech investment in 1993, for an inhalable flu vaccine approved a decade later and still in use. And it drove him to invest in CAR-T as a potential cure for HIV, years before it proved a wildly effective treatment for some cancers.

Now, listening to Picker talk about T cells and antibodies and the curious biology of cytomegalovirus, Nelsen began wondering if it was time for another bet. Picker’s technology was not only promising, he reasoned, it could be the basis of a company that changed how researchers approached viruses. Instead of trying to come up with an antidote for every pathogen, you could do what cancer researchers had learned to do, and harness the immune system to do the work for you.

This wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. “It’s like the least trendy idea in the world,” Nelsen told me. “People would say, ‘Why the hell are you going into infectious disease?’”

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Jan Hatzius (Photographer: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When will it end? Gold­man econ­o­mist gives late-stage vac­cines a good shot at tar­get­ing 'large shares' of the US by mid-2021 — but the down­side is daunt­ing

It took decades for hepatitis B research to deliver a slate of late-stage candidates capable of reining the disease in.

With Covid-19, the same timeline has devoured all of 5 months. And the outcome will influence the lives of billions of people and a multitrillion-dollar world economy.

Count the economists at Goldman Sachs as optimistic that at least one of these leading vaccines will stay on this furiously accelerated pace and get over the regulatory goal line before the end of this year, with a shot at several more near-term OKs. That in turn should lead to the production of billions of doses of vaccines that can create herd immunity in the US by the middle of next year, with Europe following a few months later.

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UP­DAT­ED: No­vavax her­alds the lat­est pos­i­tive snap­shot of ear­ly-stage Covid-19 vac­cine — so why did its stock briefly crater?

High-flying Novavax $NVAX became the latest of the Covid-19 vaccine players to stake out a positive set of biomarker data from its early-stage look at its vaccine in humans.

Their adjuvanted Covid-19 vaccine was “well-tolerated and elicited robust antibody responses numerically superior to that seen in human convalescent sera,” the company noted. According to the biotech:

All subjects developed anti-spike IgG antibodies after a single dose of vaccine, many of them also developing wild-type virus neutralizing antibody responses, and after Dose 2, 100% of participants developed wild-type virus neutralizing antibody responses. Both anti-spike IgG and viral neutralization responses compared favorably to responses from patients with clinically significant COVID‑19 disease. Importantly, the IgG antibody response was highly correlated with neutralization titers, demonstrating that a significant proportion of antibodies were functional.

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Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a prospec­tive moth­er­lode of Covid-19 vac­cine rev­enue — will a back­lash fol­low?

Moderna shows no sign of slowing down, or turning charitable when it comes to pricing supplies of its Covid-19 vaccine.

One of the leaders in the Phase III race to get a Covid-19 vaccine across the finish line in record time, Moderna says it’s on track to complete enrollment in one of the most avidly watched studies in the world next month. And the biotech has already banked some $400 million in deposits for vaccine supply as it works through negotiations with countries around the world — as CEO Stéphane Bancel sets out to hire a commercial team.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J and BAR­DA agree to $1 bil­lion for 100 mil­lion dos­es; Plas­ma re­duces mor­tal­i­ty by 50% — re­ports

J&J has become the latest vaccine developer to agree to supply BARDA with doses of their Covid-19 vaccine, signing an agreement that will give the government 100 million doses in exchange for $1 billion in funding.

The agreement, similar to those signed by Novavax, Sanofi and AstraZeneca-Oxford, provides funding not only for individual doses but to help J&J ramp up manufacturing. Pfizer, by contrast, received $1.95 billion for the doses alone. Still, if one looked at each agreement as purchase amounts, J&J’s deal would be $10 per dose, slotting in between Novavax’s $16 per dose and AstraZeneca’s $4 per dose.

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Lund­beck sounds taps on an­oth­er CNS drug, re­treat­ing from a mine field still oc­cu­pied by a Mer­ck team

Lundbeck has snipped another clinical-stage branch of its CNS research, dumping a schizophrenia program after determining that their therapy would have no positive influence on the disease.

Designed originally as a 240-patient study, researchers set out in early 2019 to see if a homegrown drug dubbed Lu AF11167 could make it through a proof-of-concept study. The drug is a PDE10Ai inhibitor, targeting an enzyme which it said at the time offered a new pathway to retuning the body’s neurotransmitter dopamine. The big idea was that by hitting their target, the drug would modulate “dopamine D1 and D2 receptor-mediated intraneuronal signaling without binding to these receptors,” influencing negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

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Sean Nolan and RA Session II

Less than 3 months af­ter launch, the AveX­is crew’s Taysha rais­es $95M Se­ries B. Is an IPO next?

The old AveXis team is moving quickly in Dallas.

Three months ago, they launched Taysha with $30 million in Series A funding and a pipeline of gene therapies out of UT Southwestern. Now, they’ve announced an oversubscribed $95 million Series B. And the biotech is declining all interview requests on the news, the kind of broad silence that can indicate an IPO is in the pipeline.

Biotechs, including those relatively fresh off launch, have been going public at a frenzy since the pandemic began. Investors have showed a willingness to put upwards of $200 million to companies that have yet to bring a drug into the clinic. Still, if Taysha were to go public in the near future, it would be perhaps the shortest path from launch to IPO in recent biotech memory.

Igor Splawski (CureVac)

Cure­Vac nabs a top No­var­tis sci­en­tist for CSO slot as mR­NA vac­cines seize the spot­light

One of the key players in the race to develop a new mRNA vaccine to fight Covid-19 has reshuffled the top spots in the executive suite. And they’re bringing in a Novartis vet out of Harvard to spearhead their work on mRNA.

CureVac, which just filed for an IPO that’s still taking shape, has formally handed Franz-Werner Haas the CEO title, after giving it to him on an interim basis. And the still rather stealthy German biotech largely owned by billionaire Dietmar Hopp has recruited Igor Splawski as its chief scientific officer.

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President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

OWS' Mon­cef Slaoui lam­basts ‘in­sult­ing’ me­dia cov­er­age: 'How are you help­ing in this pan­dem­ic?'

Ten weeks into his job as the chief advisor of Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui has found a new hurdle to the challenge of bringing a Covid-19 vaccine unprecedented speed: the media.

In an official podcast by the Department of Health and Human Services, Slaoui — a veteran of GlaxoSmithKline who came out of his retirement to take on the role, relinquishing several board directorships and selling shares in the process — counted himself naive in assuming that the press was aiming to inform.

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J&J gets a fresh OK for es­ke­t­a­mine, but is it re­al­ly the game-chang­er for de­pres­sion Trump keeps tweet­ing about?

Backed by an enthusiastic set of tweets from President Trump and a landmark OK for depression, J&J scooped up a new approval from the FDA for Spravato today. But this latest advance will likely bring fresh scrutiny to a drug that’s spurred some serious questions about the data, as well as the price.

First, the approval.

Regulators stamped their OK on the use of Spravato — developed as esketamine, a nasal spray version of the party drug Special K or ketamine — for patients suffering from major depressive disorder with acute suicidal ideation or behavior.

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