We thought we’d finally get to see what a post-pandemic world looked like in 2022, but thanks to omicron, it seems we’re in for another round.
Biotech has been shaped by the pandemic in ways that may be permanent, just as every industry has. Key among the changes is how deals are struck and an explosion of research into treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
Let’s start with the deals. Instead of executives sneaking off to corners of conference halls, these days, it's Zoom meetings and cold calls. We heard over the past year that deals slowed down as chance encounters at events such as the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference stopped.
I write this just days after that very conference went fully virtual, sending the industry scrambling to schedule Zoom meetings and cancel flights for January (this reporter included). Alnylam CEO John Maraganore, who didn’t plan to go anyway, had warned prior to the decision that the potential for a super-spreader live event would be a PR disaster for the very industry that’s working so hard to quell the raging pandemic.
Our prediction for 2022 is, sadly, more of the same. More virtual conferences and fewer opportunities for small biotechs to run into an executive who could change the direction of their company.
So how can biotechs get onto Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s virtual desktop? Well, I don’t know, to be honest. And as a journalist, I’d like to. We do know the company is rich with cash from its COVID program and looking to buy.
They’ve already executed a couple of deals, including the $6.7 billion buy of Arena Pharmaceuticals earlier this month, so we know the company’s M&A team has figured out how to navigate the new world of dealmaking. They’ve even narrowed down their priorities publicly: late-stage companies with assets that could provide revenue in the back half of this decade as well as early-stage, riskier companies that could have a breakthrough on their hands someday.
Continuing to speak as a journalist, I’d say—and I assume Bourla might think this way too—I’d want to see some compelling data.
And on that note, let’s talk COVID treatments. We’ve seen dozens of small companies fall hard after their attempts at developing a COVID treatment or vaccine flopped. See RedHill Biopharma, Mesoblast and CytoDyn.
Meanwhile, Big Pharma has made a few strikes against the stubborn respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Pfizer seems to have a winner on its hands with Paxlovid, which is now expected to work against the omicron variant, and so has Merck with molnupiravir—although more recent data on that candidate have raised some eyebrows as the efficacy dropped on further analysis.
Either way, we wonder whether biotechs will fine-tune their research in 2022, instead of just checking the dusty storeroom shelves hoping to come across a Hail Mary. The science on COVID-19 is getting stronger every day, even as variants like omicron emerge and send things back to square one.
So, in the third year of the pandemic, we hope to see the dam break on M&A and some interesting data that could bring us out of the pandemic, whether that be from big or little pharma, or small biotechs.
We'll also be watching out for the data drops in other indications in the biotech universe that could make a company a must-buy for the many behemoths that have cash to burn.
As for the fourth year of the pandemic? We really hope there isn’t one.