Covid-19 roundup: Harvard scientist who invested in Moderna early becomes a pandemic billionaire — and he's giving much of the money away
Covid-19 has vaulted a Harvard professor into the global ranks of billionaires.
Timothy Springer, the soft-spoken, garden-tending, Chinese rock-collecting immunologist made some headlines a couple years ago when it got out that he was the 4th largest shareholder in Moderna, a company that was launching the largest IPO in biotech history. Springer, who made his first fortune from selling his company LeukoSite to Millennium Pharmaceuticals for $100 million, had made an early $5 million investment in the company in 2010 after founder and fellow Harvard scientist Derrick Rossi asked him for advice on how to pitch to venture capitalists, who had consistently passed on his mRNA-based idea. Eventually Rossi found a taker in Flagship, who wanted to build not simply a biotech but essentially a new pharma giant. Moderna went public in 2018. Springer made $400 million overnight.
Then, this year, Moderna emerged as the frontrunner to build a vaccine for Covid-19, quickly becoming the first company to put their vaccine in the clinic and recently nabbing a nearly $500 million contract from BARDA. As the virus spread and shook the global economy by its roots, investors poured money into the biotech. The stock shot up 152% in three-and-a-half months. CEO Stéphane Bancel, with his stock options, soon became a billionaire.
And yesterday, Bloomberg reported, so did Springer. His investment in a friend’s startup is now worth over $800 million. That’s a 17,000% return. With his other funds, that puts him into the biotech billionaires club, alongside folks like Robert Duggan and Patrick Soon-Shiong.
It also puts him alongside Zoom founder Eric Yuan in the perhaps uncomfortable but certainly enviable position of passively profiting off a pandemic that has shut down the global economy and cost 20 million jobs in the US alone.
Springer said his money, though, won’t stay in pocket. Most of it will go to the Institute for Protein Innovation, an open source hub he and colleague Andrew Kruse founded several years ago to design antibodies and other proteins as cures for intractable diseases.
@moderna_tx is led by great team. Since I live a relatively modest academic lifestyle it’s going to @IPI_Protein. I like active philanthropy even more than active investing. https://t.co/ekGrFTe8DI
— timothy springer (@timothyspringer) April 23, 2020
It suits his academic lifestyle, he said, one centered on a single home in Chestnut Hill, academics, gardening and collecting gongshi, or scholar’s rocks. Still, if Moderna emerges with a vaccine for this once-in-a-century virus, part of the credit may belong to Springer, and to some advice — and $5 million — he gave to a younger colleague a decade ago. — Jason Mast
Volunteers in NIH trial get second shot of Moderna’s vaccine
Twenty eight days have passed since volunteers in Seattle received their first shot of the first Covid-19 vaccine to be tested in humans. And investigators are now welcoming them back for the second injection.
The Phase I trial, conducted at Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, tests Moderna’s mRNA vaccine candidate. As safety is its main endpoint, the fact that it’s still going on is good news.
“The trial hasn’t been stopped. We know from the study protocol that if adverse events had happened, the protocol would have required that,” Lisa Jackson, a senior investigator at Kaiser who is leading the trial, told USA Today. “Therefore we presume those things haven’t happened.”
The second shot that volunteers will receive is intended to build on the immunogenicity given by the first primer shot, so that the body can produce antibodies more rapidly when it’s exposed to the real SARS-CoV-2.
Having enrolled 45 participants in the first round, the NIH is expanding the trial to include 60 more adults over the age of 56.
Moderna — which recently secured $483 million from BARDA to rapidly ramp up manufacturing and recruit 150 more staffers — has indicated that it intends to continue its breakneck development pace and launch a Phase II this quarter if the initial results come in positive. — Amber Tong
Can Farxiga protect Covid-19 patients from organ failure and death? AstraZeneca launches PhIII
As doctors begin to get a clearer picture of Covid-19’s clinical manifestations, the search for drugs to push back the most severe consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection has turned up unlikely candidates. In the latest example, AstraZeneca has launched a Phase III trial to test the ability of Farxiga, originally approved for diabetes, to reduce the risk of serious complications and organ failure.
Data from its extensive Farxiga program have shown that it has a protective effect in patients with heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), chronic kidney disease (CKD) and type 2 diabetes, AstraZeneca pointed out. Coincidentally, “cardiac, renal and metabolic comorbidities have been associated with poor outcomes and death in Covid-19 patients.”
The pharma giant is teaming up with Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute on the placebo-controlled trial, dubbed DARE-19. It will enroll patients who have a medical history of hypertension, atherosclerotic CV disease, HFrEF, CKD or T2D, and shoot for a direct measure of efficacy: time to first occurrence of death from any cause or new/worsened organ dysfunction.
All patients will receive standard-of-care therapy.
AstraZeneca has been active repurposing some of its biggest drugs for Covid-19, recently kicking off a pivotal trial for the BTK inhibitor Calquence. That’s on top of efforts to discover new antibody-based treatments that could be deployed earlier in disease progression. — Amber Tong
Pandemic impacts close to two-thirds of one CRO’s clinical sites
We’ve all heard, through updates from biopharma companies here and there, how the pandemic is weighing on clinical trials. But what’s the situation like from a bird’s eye view? A contract research organization has provided another data point.
ICON, which operates in 40 countries, reported in its quarterly update that around 65% of its global clinical sites were impacted in some way by the pandemic.
“Furthermore, we are seeing Site ID & enrollment delays due to site closures and movement restrictions on patients. We are proactively reviewing and agreeing to alternative approaches with customers on a study-by-study basis, including remote and risk based monitoring and ‘at home’ services delivered through our Symphony Clinical Research group,” the company wrote.
Execs are adopting a cost containment plan to weather the crisis, including salary reductions, a recruitment freeze, cutting contractors and other expenditures.
The silver lining is that operations in China, which began having issues in February, are seeing conditions improve since mid-March with sites re-opening and monitoring activities resuming. — Amber Tong
UK outlines nationwide study to test for virus, antibodies and gauge the scale of the outbreak
The UK will conduct a large national study to survey the rate of Covid-19 infection in its population — which should yield crucial numbers to inform when it can relax lockdown measures.
Over 300,000 people will be tested regularly for the coronavirus over the next year for the virus via self-administered swabs, 1,000 of whom will also be asked to provide blood samples to see if they’ve developed antibodies against the virus. Scientists at Oxford are in the process of validating an antibody test for the trial after finding that most of the kits the government has purchased give inaccurate results.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the study should “continue to build up our understanding of this new virus,” such as the extent of community transmission and how long immunity lasts. A pilot will begin shortly involving 20,000 households.
IQVIA will dispatch its nurses to conduct home visits where they will ask the participants questions and, when an antibody test is involved, draw blood samples. — Amber Tong
Chinese vaccine developer notches loan and land to scale up manufacturing as human study gets underway
Sinovac — one of two Chinese developers to get IND clearance for a coronavirus vaccine trial in recent days — has quickly racked up new loans and land to manufacture up to 100 million shots a year.
The Bank of Beijing provided an $8.5 million (RMB$60 million) credit line to match Sinovac’s own investment while the city government gave it access to 70,000 square meters of land in the Daxing district. The biotech plans to build a large production complex for multiple products, with one plant devoted to the coronavirus vaccine if it proves effective in trials.
“It took one, two weeks for the (local government) decision,” an anonymous exec told Reuters. “Previously, two years wouldn’t have been long enough to complete negotiations.”
The speed underscores the urgency for protection against a deadly disease that’s killed thousands in China and more than 180,000 worldwide.
Sinovac is a Nasdaq-listed company that markets vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and H1N1 influenza domestically. — Amber Tong
Azar relied on trusted aide and sidelined Hahn in early days of coronavirus response — reports
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn was excluded from the coronavirus task force early in the US outbreak on HHS secretary Alex Azar’s order, Reuters reported. Rather, the former industry exec tapped his chief of staff, who had to coordinate his agency’s response.
Brian Harrison had worked in the office of the deputy HHS secretary in the George W. Bush administration — overlapping with Azar’s earlier HHS tenure — and held other federal positions before going off to run businesses in Texas, including a stint breeding labradoodles, according to the Wall Street Journal. He was recruited back to the HHS in 2018 and promoted to chief of staff last June.
Before Vice President Pence took over from Azar as the head of the coronavirus task force, he reportedly served as the key manager through whom “everyone had to report up.” Some White House officials apparently called him “the dog breeder,” sources told Reuters.
The new reports intensify some apparent in-fighting within the top departments tasked with tackling the biggest public health crisis the country has seen in years. Rick Bright, until recently the chief of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — another HHS unit — said he was ousted because he stood against “drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.” Specifically, he cited his cautious stance on chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump touted as potential game-changers without definitive evidence. — Amber Tong
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named a former DocuSign chairman among those who have profited during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Social image: Timothy Springer (Boston Children’s Hospital)
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