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How can AI help biotech companies seeking vaccines?
Mar 16, 2020

How can AI help biotech companies seeking vaccines?

Artificial intelligence can see "signals" in data earlier than humans, says the co-founder of a biotech investment fund.

The new coronavirus is now officially a pandemic, and researchers are speeding to discover, test and deploy a vaccine. Some are hoping that breakthrough biotechnology and artificial intelligence can get us there faster. Much of the funding and development of a COVID-19 vaccine is likely to happen privately. The $8 billion coronavirus funding bill passed by the U.S. government includes just $800 million for the National Institutes of Health, where official U.S. vaccine research and development happens, but which is chronically underfunded.

I asked Michael Greeley, co-founder and general partner with biotech investment fund Flare Capital in Boston, what uses AI could have in dealing with coronavirus. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Michael Greeley: We know what populations are most at risk, which is the elderly and people with comorbidities. We can begin to very aggressively isolate those people, if possible. So we can begin to triage the population. And that’s the promise of AI: If you’re looking at real-world evidence across populations, you can begin to see signals in datasets way earlier than we were historically. So our health care system should be able to react or proactively begin to intervene in places that we think could be potential hot spots.

Molly Wood: I’m not trying to skip past the current crisis, but how far afield are solutions that could prevent or slow down, you know, the next novel coronavirus?

Greeley: There’s a dynamic here that you’ll never get ahead of fully because the viruses mutate quickly. They have unknown origin, so it’s hard to develop therapeutics or vaccines anticipating a certain strain of virus that we don’t know exists. So to some extent, we’re always going to be in somewhat of a reactive mode. And the business of vaccines is you use it once, and you’re presumably going to be fine from future infection. So there’s no ongoing commercial relationship, which sounds terrible in this moment of crisis to talk about it. But that’s the fundamental dichotomy of that industry and why I think we’re we’re kind of woefully unprepared for these novel viruses that come up,

Wood: What do you think that this means for the future? There’s been a lot of investment in biotech over the last couple of years. Do you expect that to increase or for the trajectories to change at all?

Greeley: Given the advancements in AI and our understanding of molecular pathways, I think the overarching dollars investment heading into biotech will continue to be very robust. I think in the very near term — within our firm, we literally can’t do business. We’ve shut the firm down. We can’t meet entrepreneurs. So I worry that there’s going to be this air bubble that moves through the system. It could be a few quarters, it could be into the fall, where profound early stage investment will drop very dramatically. Over the arc of time, does that have a long-lasting impact? Probably not. But in the next couple of years, you’ll see that in drug development pipelines — over the next two to four years — where there’ll be this kind of blackout period, where not a lot of investment was made and not a lot of interesting innovation was discovered. But I don’t think this fundamentally changes investor sentiment towards biotech. And in fact, you know, if this is more fleeting, I think people will say there’s a lot of opportunity here to figure out these problems and may actually increase investment dollars.

Wood: Right, although I want to go back to what you just said about this idea that over the next couple of years that there will be opportunities missed. In this space you’re talking about, missed opportunities are potentially diseases not cured or treated, right?

Greeley: That’s right. I don’t necessarily dispute that. I also think there’ll be another silver lining, which is we’ll come to further respect the power of AI in multiple facets. One area that we spent a lot of time thinking is real-world evidence, RWE. Would we have seen activities in China in September and October, for instance, that would have alerted us months and months in advance, before we had to start reading about it in The New York Times in mid-January? So as our ability to analyze non-traditional datasets, AI will enable an early intervention, which is to begin to interrogate, inquire, about things that don’t look right. It’s pretty clear: Had we known and had our administration taken steps in December, in January, we wouldn’t be sitting here in early March saying, “We’re shutting the country down.” You know, we might have been able to do things more aggressively earlier, to preempt what will look like Italy instead of other parts of the world.

Related Links: More insight from Molly Wood

CNN has a good piece on the nearly two decades of underfunding the National Institutes of Health. That leads directly to funding shortages for universities, research institutions and medical schools, leaving development to happen reactively in a crisis, which is what’s happening now, and at for-profit companies, who will have to make back their money by charging for their drugs.

The medical tech publication Stat has a piece on a drug development company called Inovio that made $208 million in a stock maneuver, because its share price has been so high based on its promise of a so-far untested coronavirus vaccine. But the piece goes on to say there are dozens of companies working on a vaccine. Others have more funding, including from the government, and this company might not be able to pull it off at all.

We should be very wary of any rush to develop and test vaccines, no matter what. But especially when large profits may be involved. For example, Moderna, a drug discovery company that has lots of funding from the government and the Gates Foundation is moving ahead with vaccine testing on humans without first testing its drug on animals, which is definitely not how things are usually done.

Also watching

Schools are rapidly closing all over the country. Workers are being sent home, and America is starting to realize that maybe the internet is a utility after all. The Federal Communications Commission has asked internet service providers and telecom providers to commit to keeping service on even if people are late on their bills, waive late fees for people and businesses, and open Wi-Fi hot spots to everyone. Democratic members of the commission said the request should also include getting rid of data caps.

And credit to the “Make Me Smart” Facebook group for this: If you, like me, have a child or children at home because their schools are closed, or you just need some high-class entertainment while you’re cooped up in the house, Google Arts & Culture is working with 500 museums and galleries to offer virtual tours that go beyond just an online collection of photos. It’s more like street view for walking around museums, like the Van Gogh in Amsterdam or the National Gallery in London. Fast Company has a nice roundup of that and other options for an at-home culture fix.

And we’re all still working on our remote work etiquette. Here are today’s video conference do’s and don’ts. On Twitter, Storage Diva says, “DO include your canine in your Zooms — this is a stressful time and dogs make people happy.” Also on Twitter, Larry Garfield says, among other things, “Do not feel pressured to turn your camera on for a meeting. Most meetings don’t need it.”

And all of us say — and will continue to say every single day — DO mute yourself when you’re not talking.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer