At Klick Health’s first brainstorming conference with people from the biotech and pharmaceutical industries since the start of the pandemic, it was no surprise that many conversations involved topics about Covid. Yet while vaccines and treatments were discussed, so were the effects on drug development, federal responses, health care disparities — and what to do now and going forward.
George Yiankopoulos, Regeneron’s chief scientist and co-founder, opened the conference by answering a question from Ron Cohen, CEO of Acorda, about the spotlight on the industry during Covid and some of the “flak” biopharma has taken in the past.
“I hope society recognizes the impact that this disease can have, measured as it was in the pandemic in the trillions, in terms of the economy — and can’t even calculate the loss of life and the associated suffering,” Yiankopoulos said. “I hope it makes the public realize that maybe we don’t have to invest more than $30 million, for example, in NIH funding, but we also invest a lot more in this great industry to protect ourselves from these catastrophic lost. I think we’re not doing enough.”
He credited Regeneron’s speed in developing its early REGEN-COV monoclonal antibody treatment — along with work by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly — building on the companies’ decades of scientific development and investment. With many more needed, he pointed out.
“We have to recognize that none of the existing solutions to disease and none of the existing solutions to climate change will save us. We need new solutions,” he said, which will only come from supporting the next generations of talent and with investments “on a much larger scale than we are today.”
Former BARDA chief Rick Bright also spoke about the need to invest in and improve not only the current response to Covid as it becomes endemic, but also the importance of trust and truth in these efforts. Bright headed BARDA under President Barack Obama, joining in 2016, but was removed and reassigned to a lower-level NIH job by the Trump administration in April 2020. Bright subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint and testified before Congress for the government’s chaotic response to the pandemic.
“We hear a lot about the erosion of trust, and to be trustworthy we have to be honest,” he said. “… Since the beginning of this pandemic, we haven’t had much truth, to be honest. So we have to make sure that we’re not only putting the truth out there, but that we’re translating the truth into something that people can understand. When they see the development of a vaccine or a monoclonal antibody therapeutic, as George said, they don’t realize it’s been a decade of work. It was skipped over for political rhetoric to say “hey, I made a vaccine in a short amount of time.”
Also on stage for a panel on personalized medicine was Tal Sachs, former chief medical officer of Moderna and developer of the Spikevax Covid vaccine, who is now a partner at OrbiMed Advisors.
While the ideas of personalized medicine and vaccines for the mass market may seem incongruous, Zacks noted that “all of medicine has always been personalized. We go to the doctor for treatment for ourselves, not for our neighbor.”
In Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, for example, customization comes into play for immunocompromised people and some cancer patients who don’t respond as well and need specific, different therapies. While costs, benefits and value are familiar themes in discussions of personalized medicine, Zacks said the potential size of the patient pool for personalized medicines is less important to him than what they can deliver.
“Rather than seeing the rise of personalized medicine as something that pharmas got into because they couldn’t make money elsewhere, I have a different take. To me, the reason we’re talking about personalized medicine is because it’s been discovered by science,” he said. “… The world of science and the world of technology are opening up opportunities for us to better understand populations – even with prevalent diseases. If you talk to pharmacists today, they’re not really afraid of cardiovascular disease or neurological disease or diabetes, what they’re bringing to the fore is a much more nuanced way of understanding these populations and the individual’s risk factor.