Venrock survey shows growing recognition of coronavirus toll, waning confidence in arrival of vaccines and treatments
When Venrock partner Bryan Roberts went to check the results from their annual survey of healthcare leaders, what he found was an imprint of the pandemic’s slow arrival in America.
The venture firm had sent their form out to hundreds of insurance and health tech executives, investors, officials and academics on February 24 and gave them two weeks to fill it out. No Americans had died at that point but the coronavirus had become enough of a global crisis that they included two questions about the virus, including “Total U.S. deaths in 2020 from the novel coronavirus will be:”.
The respondents didn’t quite understand the scope — as many predicted fewer than 10 US deaths as those who predicted over 100,000 deaths, which is where the US stands today — but Roberts could watch a recognition settling in: Those that filled out the survey in the second week predicted 4 to 5 times as many deaths as those who filled it out in the first week.
“When I read that, in the 2nd or 3rd week of March, I was like wow,” Roberts told Endpoints News. “You could already tell now, 2 weeks later, that it was going to be a much bigger deal. And we were on a slope of mindset change during the survey.”
Roberts and his colleagues grew curious about where that slope would lead. So for the first time, they prepared follow-up surveys, snapshots of how a generational crisis was burrowing, spreading, and receding in the minds of a few hundred healthcare leaders. The results from the third survey, released today, trace a grim but likely familiar trajectory for many: A sudden recognition of the scope of the threat, an initial burst of optimism for treatments and vaccines, and then a gradual understanding that those might take longer than first thought.
By their second survey, sent out on March 22, when there were 390 US deaths — and returned by April 3, when there were nearly 7,000 — 55% of correspondents foresaw between 100,000 and 1 million deaths. By the April 28 – May 6 survey, that was 84%.
“I don’t remember the last time there was an educated group’s mindset that changed that much — an order of magnitude every 4 weeks,” Roberts said. “On any topic.”
The rise in projected deaths reflected in large part the unquestionably rising statistics. A contrasting trend played out in the hopes around treatments and vaccines. In March, as Gilead rushed to put remdesivir into human trials, 53% of participants predicted there would be an effective drug by 2021. But in the third survey — completed as the data from remdesivir was coming out and the drug was proving to boost recovery time but offer no panacea — only 39% foresaw an effective drug emerging soon.
”Reality set in,” Roberts said. “Remdesivir is lovely, it’s off the shelf, it’s not a huge deal.”
There’s little data yet on how effective the current vaccine candidates are, but as the need for one has become more acute and the race more crowded, there’s been greater discussion on the obstacles those vaccines will face: from testing them to scaling them. Even as the Trump administration and some companies continue to push to have a safe, effective and accessible vaccine by early next year, confidence that one will actually appear by 2021 dropped from 45% to 31%.
That’s helped lead a majority of Venrock’s correspondents to forecast multiple waves of the virus, and nearly 90% to predict continued staggered and remote work.
In the latest round of questions, Venrock also polled respondents about changes to their own businesses. A quarter had laid off employees, a quarter had given pay cuts, and most were expecting multiple waves of shelter-in-place orders.
Still, nearly half, 47%, said their own businesses “will be largely unaffected” — not that Roberts puts much stock in that answer.
“Every entrepreneur in the universe thinks they’re going to take over the world,” he said.
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