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San Diego
Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Biotech Industry Stays Strong Through COVID-19

Over the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has tested businesses adaptability to unforeseen challenges — and the region’s life science industry is no exception.

For the first time in Ionis Pharmaceuticals’ 31 year history, its annual shareholder meeting was completely virtual.

Not Many Changes

The Carlsbad-based company’s June 4 meeting illustrated a change that accommodated the new norm of people working-from-home. Otherwise, the company has not had to make any significant changes to its strategic objectives or business, said Ionis’ Chief Financial Officer.

“From the get-go we have been an essential business,” Hougen explained in regard to California’s stay at home order on March 19. “Our research labs and manufacturing business has stayed open and frankly we haven’t lost a beat.”

Hougen said that as the leader in RNA-targeted therapy one of the core principles of Ionis is that “sick people depend on us.” On the financial side, the company came off a strong first quarter, and reported $130 million in revenue.

“It’s more than one year of success and momentum,” Hougen said. “It’s rooted in putting the patients first and having a culture of innovation; that deep ingrained character and culture is what sustains companies in downtime. It doesn’t come down to just a good quarter or year.”

Performed Better

While the pandemic has hurt the economy as a whole, research analysts from investment firm SVB Leerlink, “found the biotech and pharmaceutical indices performed substantially better than the broad market (S&P 500) during economic downturns.”

Local biotech corporation, Arena Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Nasdaq: ARNA) offered 5.5 million of its common stock at a price of $50 per share, the company announced on May 28.

Earlier in the month, Arena’s President and CEO, Amit D. Munshi, expressed the company’s strategy for navigating the tumultuous market.

“As we navigate the difficult and uncertain global conditions, we are taking measures to slow down hiring and spend in non-clinical areas, ensuring that we are highly focused on our key clinical objectives,” Munshi said during the company’s Q1 earnings call. “We continue to judiciously manage cash and explore ways to reduce burn without impacting the long-term value of Arena or the delivery of critical milestones.”

Honing In On Core Principles

Arena’s strategy of honing in on the core-principles and primary objectives of the business is exactly what Joe Panetta, CEO of BioCom, would advise other life science companies on how to weather the storm of the pandemic.

“It’s time to be lean and mean,” Panetta said. “Focus on the employees who are our lifeblood and value. Companies need to keep an eye on the target as this is a time to really hunker down and really focus on their primary areas for research.”

BioCom works on behalf of over 1,300 members in the life science community to drive public policy and support the research and innovations of these companies that contribute to California’s economy.

Panetta said one of the “gray areas” that he helped local life science companies navigate was “whether they fit the definition of essential and could they legally come back,” during the governor’s initial stay at home order.

Vaccine Research

While the current health-crisis has caused some companies’ clinical trials to hit pause, other companies have hit the gas on clinical research for a coronavirus vaccine. Panetta said that there are a lot of companies taking shots at COVID-19 vaccines and we “don’t know which one is going to make a goal.”

Among those hoping for a lucky shot is Inovio Pharmaceuticals, whose San Diego-based lab received $6.9 million in funding to develop a COVID-19 vaccine for clinical trials in South Korea.

As San Diego County approaches stage three of reopening, it’s up to business leaders to write the road map for what the new normal looks like within their company. That’s why BioCom created a guide called, “The Path Forward: Return to Work Guide for California’s Life Science Industry,” according to the company.

Back to Business

While he projects the move back to business will be gradual, Panetta said it was important for BioCom to figure out a way to support small to mid-size life science companies and strategize how to safely return to work.

Additionally, BioCom worked with the California Office of Emergency Services to provide 350 of its member companies with essential personal protective equipment such as masks and sanitizers at no cost.

When biotech companies get back to their clinical trials, Panetta said that will signal a gradual comeback to business as usual.

“From what I’ve seen, it will be a build up from where we are now,” Panetta said.

While San Diegans face uncharted territory and life science companies of all sizes get back to work, Hougen said there is one thing she doesn’t see going away.

“For the industry as a whole, I’ve always believed this is a highly collaborative industry in all aspects of the business. I don’t anticipate that that is going to change.”


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