The annual Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) meeting kicked off Monday with the proverbial passing of the baton from longtime head Jim Greenwood to Michelle McMurry-Heath, who was tapped to take over the organization last month.
Greenwood, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and champion of the biotech industry, announced his intentions to retire at the end of 2019. Greenwood has helmed the organization for 14 years and throughout that tenure, he has been a champion for innovation within the pharmaceutical industry to address many challenges in healthcare.
Jeremy Levin, chief executive officer of Ovid Therapeutics and chairman of BIO, called Greenwood a “towering figure” in the biopharma industry. Since Greenwood took over BIO, Levin said organization members have won more than 500 drug approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and has seen investments from venture capitalists soar by the tens of billions of dollars.
“Jim has led this organization with unshakeable integrity and unceasing drive,” Levin, who is a towering figure in the industry in his own right, said in a video from his cattle farm.
In his own video comments from the nation’s capital, Greenwood said he may be stepping down from his role at BIO, but he would remain a staunch supporter of the innovation seen in the industry. He will continue to work as a consultant in the industry and said he will likely serve on the boards of directors of some companies. Greenwood said he will reiterate his support for protect the environment and said he will work to ensure that no climate-change denier wins a seat in Congress.
McMurry-Heath, a veteran of both Merck and Johnson & Johnson, said she intends to continue building on the legacy that Greenwood established at BIO. She said the innovations made by the industry will turn an age of fear into one of hope, which is especially important when the nation is in the grips of both a pandemic and civil unrest, she said. An African American, McMurry-Heath pointed to the unrest and protests across the nation and recounted her own struggles with prejudice and racism. . However, she said the biotech industry “wrapped its arms around her” and provided a space for personal and professional growth. She said the industry, which impacts everything from what we eat and wear, to our personal health and how the world advances, can provide that hope.
As an example, she pointed to its response to COVID-19 and pointed out how the health crisis has provided a singular focus for some of the brightest minds in the field. Levin agreed. He said COVID-19 has become a rallying point for the industry and said he’s proud of how the industry has pivoted to face the COVID-19 threat. R&D programs have been “turned on a dime” to focus on developing treatments and vaccines against COVID-19, he added.
“There is a unified objective to defeat this pandemic,” Levin said.
As could be expected, COVID-19 was a primary subject of focus for some of the panels held throughout the day. Phyllis Arthur, head of infectious diseases and diagnostics policy at BIO, said the organization is currently tracking more than 550 programs, including 300+ treatment programs, for COVID-19 infection.
George Yancopoulos, the chief scientific officer of Regeneron, called this a pivotal moment in history to have a strong collection of biopharma companies to provide solutions at a critical time. He said his company is days away from initiating a clinical study of an antibody cocktail against the novel coronavirus. In March, Regeneron said it identified hundreds of virus-neutralizing antibodies that were isolated from mice that have been genetically-modified to have a human immune system. While vaccine research is ongoing, Yancopoulos said he believes the use of antibodies will not only provide prophylactic protection against the disease, but will also have a benefit to patients who are infected with the disease.
George Scangos, CEO of Vir Biotechnology, warned of incomplete and partial protection of vaccines. If flu vaccines are a good indication, Scangos said many of the people most in need of a vaccine will likely respond “least well” to the medication. That means there needs to be a significant focus on antibodies, which, he noted, are being developed by numerous companies.