COVID-19 Could Brighten the Public Spotlight on Biotech—and Accelerate Progress

Current research pipelines in biotech could take over a decade unless the heightened attention garners more resources, experts say.

Since March, 35 patients in the care of Dr. Gregory Jicha, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, have died of Alzheimer's disease or related dementia.

Meanwhile, with 233 active clinical trials underway to find treatments, Jicha wonders why mainstream media outlets don't do more to highlight potential solutions to the physical, emotional and economic devastation of these diseases. "Unfortunately, it's not until we're right at the cusp of a major discovery that anybody pays attention to these very promising agents," he says.

Heightened awareness would bring more resources for faster progress, according to Jicha. Otherwise, he's concerned that current research pipelines will take over a decade.

In recent years, newspapers with national readerships have devoted more technology reporting to key developments in social media, artificial intelligence, wired gadgets and telecom. Less prominent has been news about biotech—innovations based on biology research—and new medicines emerging from this technology. That's the impression of Jicha as well as Craig Lipset, former head of clinical innovation at Pfizer. "Scientists and clinicians are entirely invested [in biotech], yet no one talks about their discoveries," he says.

With the popular press rightly focusing on progress with a vaccine for COVID-19 this year, notable developments in biomarkers, Alzheimer's and cancer research, gene therapies for cystic fibrosis, and therapeutics related to biological age may be going unreported. Jennifer Goldsack, Executive Director of the nonprofit Digital Medicine Society, is confused over the media's soft touch with biotech. "I'm genuinely interested in understanding what editors of technology sections think the public wants to be reading."

The Numbers on Media Coverage

A newspaper's health section is a sensible fit for biotech reporting. In 2020, these departments have concentrated largely on COVID-19—as they should—while sections on technology and science don't necessarily pick up on other biotech news. Emily Mullin, staff writer for the tech magazine OneZero, has observed a gap in newspaper coverage. "You have a lot of [niche outlets] reporting biotech on the business side for industry experts, and you have a lot of reporting heavily from the science side focused on [readers who are] scientists. But there aren't a lot of outlets doing more humanizing coverage of biotech."

Indeed, the volume of coverage by top-tier media outlets in the U.S. for non-COVID biotech has dropped 32 percent since the pandemic spiked in March, according to an analysis run for this article by Commetric, a company that looks at media reputation for clients in many sectors including biotech and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the volume of coverage for AI has held steady, up one percent.

Commetric's CEO, Magnus Hakansson, thinks important biotech stories were omitted from mainstream coverage even before the world fell into the grips of the virus. "Apart from COVID, it's been extremely difficult for biotech companies to push out their discoveries," he says. "People in biotech have to be quite creative when they want to communicate [progress in] different therapeutic areas, and that is a problem."

In mid-February, just before the pandemic dominated the news cycle, researchers used machine learning to find a powerful new antibiotic capable of killing strains of disease-causing bacteria that had previously resisted all known antibiotics. Science-focused outlets hailed the work as a breakthrough, but some nationally-read newspapers didn't mention it. "There is this very silent crisis around antibiotic resistance that no one is aware of," says Goldsack. "We could be 50 years away from not being able to give elective surgeries because we are at such a high risk of being unable to control infection."

Could mainstream media strike a better balance between cynicism toward biotech and hyping animal studies that probably won't ever benefit the humans reading about them?

What's to Gain from More Mainstream Biotech

A brighter public spotlight on biotech could result in greater support and faster progress with research, says Lipset. "One of the biggest delays in drug development is patient recruitment. Patients don't know about the opportunities," he said, because, "clinical research pipelines aren't talked about in the mainstream news." Only about eight percent of oncology patients participate.

The current focus on COVID-19, while warranted, could also be excluding lines of research that seem separate from the virus, but are actually relevant. In September, Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute of Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told me about eight different observational studies finding decreased COVID-19 severity among people taking a drug called metformin, which is believed to slow down the major hallmarks of biological aging, such as inflammation. Once a vaccine is approved and distributed, biologically older people could supplement it with metformin.

"Shining the spotlight on this research now could really be critical because COVID has shown what happens in older adults and how they're more at risk," says Jenna Bartley, a researcher of aging and immunology at the University of Connecticut, but she believes mainstream media sometimes miss stories on anti-aging therapies or portray them inaccurately.

The question remains why.

The Theranos Effect and Other Image Problems

Before the pandemic, Mullin, the biotech writer at OneZero, looked into a story for her editor about a company with a new test for infectious diseases. The company said its test, based on technology for editing genes, was fast, easy to use, and could be tailored to any pathogen. Mullin told her editor the evidence for the test's validity was impressive.

He wondered if readers would agree. "This is starting to sound like Theranos," he said.

The brainchild of entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos was valued at $9 billion in 2014. Time Magazine named Holmes one of its most influential people, and the blood-testing company was heavily covered by the media as a game changer for health outcomes—until Holmes was exposed by the Wall Street Journal as a fraud and criminally charged.

In the OneZero article, Mullin and her editor were careful to explain the gene-editing tech was legit, explicitly distinguishing it from Theranos. "I was like, yes—but this actually works! And they can show it works."

While the Holmes scandal explains some of the mistrust, it's part of a bigger pattern. The public's hopes for biotech have been frustrated repeatedly in recent decades, fostering a media mantra of fool me twice, shame on me. A recent report by Commetric noted that after the bursting of the biotech market bubble in the early 2000s, commentators grew deeply skeptical of the field. An additional source of caution may be the number of researchers in biotech with conflicts of interest such as patents or their own startups. "It's a landmine," Mullin said. "We're conditioned to think that scientists are out for the common good, but they have their own biases."

Yet another source of uncertainty: the long regulatory road and cost for new therapies to be approved by the FDA. The process can take 15 years and over a billion dollars; the percentage of drugs actually crossing the final strand of red tape is notoriously low.

"The only time stories have reached the news is when there's a sensational headline about the cure for cancer," said Lipset, "when, in fact it's about mice, and then things drop off." Meanwhile, consumer protection hurdles for some technologies, such as computer chips, are less onerous than the FDA gauntlet for new medicines. The media may view research breakthroughs in digital tech as more impactful because they're likelier to find their way into commercially available products.

And whereas a handful of digital innovations have been democratized for widespread consumption—96 percent of Americans now own a cell phone, and 72 percent use social media—journalists at nationally-read newspapers may see biotech as less attainable for the average reader. Sure, we're all aging, but will the healthcare system grant everyone fair access to treatments for slowing the aging process? Current disparities in healthcare sow reason for doubt.

And yet. Recall Lipset's point that more press coverage would drive greater participation in clinical trials, which could accelerate them and diversify participants. Could mainstream media strike a better balance between cynicism toward biotech and hyping animal studies that probably won't ever benefit the humans reading about them?

Biotech in a Post-COVID World

Imagine it's early 2022. Hopefully, much of the population is protected from the virus through some combination of vaccines, therapeutics, and herd immunity. We're starting to bounce back from the social and economic shocks of 2020. COVID-19 headlines recede from the front pages, then disappear altogether. Gradually, certain aspects of life pick up where they left off in 2019, while a few changes forced by the pandemic prove to be more lasting, some for the better.

Among its possible legacies, the virus could usher in a new era of biotech development and press coverage, with these two trends reinforcing each other. While government has mismanaged its response to the virus, the level of innovation, collaboration and investment in pandemic-related biotech has been compared to the Manhattan Project. "There's no question that vaccine acceleration is a success story," said Kevin Schulman, a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford. "We could use this experience to build new economic models to correct market failures. It could carry over to oncology or Alzheimer's."

As Winston Churchill said, never let a good crisis go to waste.

Lipset thinks the virus has primed us to pay attention, bringing biotech into the public's consciousness like never before. He's amazed at how many neighbors and old friends from high school are coming out of the woodwork to ask him how clinical trials work. "What happens next is interesting. Does this open a window of opportunity to get more content out? People's appetites have been whetted."

High-profile wins could help to sustain interest, such as deployment of rapid tests of COVID-19 to be taken at home, a version of which the FDA authorized on November 18th. The idea bears resemblance to the Theranos concept, also designed as a portable analysis, except this test met the FDA's requirements and has a legitimate chance of changing people's lives. Meanwhile, at least two vaccines are on track to gain government approval in record time. The unprecedented speed could be a catalyst for streamlining inefficiencies in the FDA's approval process in non-emergency situations.

Tests for COVID-19 represent what some view as the future of managing diseases: early detection. This paradigm may be more feasible—and deserving of journalistic ink—than research on diseases in advanced stages, says Azra Raza, professor of medicine at Columbia University. "Journalists have to challenge this conceit of thinking we can cure end-stage cancer," says Raza, author of The First Cell. Beyond animal studies and "exercise helps" articles, she thinks writers should focus on biotech for catching the earliest footprints of cancer when it's more treatable. "Not enough people appreciate the extent of this tragedy, but journalists can help us do it. COVID-19 is a great moment of truth telling."

Another pressing truth is the need for vaccination, as half of Americans have said they'll skip them due to concerns about safety and effectiveness. It's not the kind of stumbling block faced by iPhones or social media algorithms. AI stirs plenty of its own controversy, but the public's interest in learning about AI and engaging with it seems to grow regardless. "Who are the publicists doing such a good job for AI that biotechnology is lacking?" Lipset wonders.

The job description of those publicists, whoever they are, could be expanding. Scientists are increasingly using AI to measure the effects of new medicines that target diseases—including COVID-19—and the pathways of aging. Mullin noted the challenge of reporting breakthroughs in the life sciences in ways the public understands. With many newsrooms tightening budgets, fewer writers have science backgrounds, and "biotech is daunting for journalists," she says. "It's daunting for me and I work in this area." Now factor in the additional expertise required to understand biotech and AI. "I learned the ropes for how to read a biotech paper, but I have no idea how to read an AI paper."

Nevertheless, Mullin believes reporters have a duty to scrutinize whether this convergence of AI and biotech will foster better outcomes. "Is it just the shiny new tool we're employing because we can? Will algorithms help eliminate health disparities or contribute to them even more? We need to pay attention."

Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.

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Dr. Jha discusses Covid vaccine passports, how supply and demand of the vaccines is about to shift, the AstraZeneca situation, what's new with kids, herd immunity, and more.

Photo of sticker by Marisol Benitez on Unsplash; Jha photo by Brown University.
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Listen to the whole episode: "Why Dr. Ashish Jha Expects a Good Summer"

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University, discusses the latest developments around the Covid-19 vaccines, including supply and demand, herd immunity, kids, vaccine passports, and why he expects the summer to look very good.

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 tragically claimed 490 lives, but was the catalyst for several important medical advances.

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On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.

"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."

Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.