Miracle or mirage in the race for a COVID-19 cure

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“There are thousands and thousands of studies being conducted … the majority may prove to be unsuccessful.”

A handout photo shows an employee demonstrating a vial with "Gam-COVID-Vac" vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), developed by the Gamaleya National Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), during its production at Binnopharm ph (photo credit: REUTERS)

A handout photo shows an employee demonstrating a vial with “Gam-COVID-Vac” vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), developed by the Gamaleya National Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), during its production at Binnopharm ph

(photo credit: REUTERS)

The world wants a miracle cure for COVID-19 already yesterday.

Positive progress reports by vaccine and treatment makers provide a glimpse of optimism that the pandemic may end, but they also leave investors, media and social media readers in a difficult situation of trying to honestly evaluate and act on various press releases.

On the one hand, most medical researchers and companies are sharing valid and interesting information. On the other hand, some are using 2020’s online information networks to manipulate the market to get a headline or even an investment.

Last week, Hadassah-University Medical Center issued a release that five COVID-19 patients who took part in the first clinical trial of Allocetra were released from the hospital virus-free between five and eight days later.

Allocetra was developed by the Enlivex Co. and is based on research conducted by Prof. Dror Mevorach, director of Hadassah’s Internal Medicine and Coronavirus departments. According to Globes, the day after the announcement, Enlivex’s share price rose 21% on Nasdaq. Similarly, in Tel Aviv, the stock soared 120%, Globes showed.

“The jump in Enlivex’s share price sent the Tel Aviv Biomed Index up by 5%. In early trading on Nasdaq today, the share price is up 87% at $11.11, giving a market cap of $150 million,” the publication reported.

The media hype led the investment community to rapidly invest. However, as one of Globes’s analysts noted in that same article, “It is difficult, even impossible, to conclude that a trial is a success on the basis of just five patients. They do not represent an adequate sample, certainly in respect of safety, which is usually checked among tens of thousands of patients. But it seems that the thirst for an antidote to the coronavirus led investors to make allowances for the company.”

The same thing happened in April, when shares of Pluristem Therapeutics climbed more than 65% after the company reported promising results from a small study of patients suffering complications due to the novel coronavirus.

“It is becoming like the hi-tech bubble of the 1990s,” Dr. Noam Tau, physician at Sheba Medical Center, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Everyone is putting their money or interest into things not proven just because someone has been able to release apublication earlier or get the public eye because it has been a slow news day.

“A lot of these studies have not even reached peer-reviewed journals,” he continued. “They have been stuck on MedRxiv.”

According to Tau, the race to find a solution for the global pandemic has left the public in a state of chaos, surrounded by partly true data and news. It has become almost a fad to drop the name of a new drug – or even an old one that is now being used for the new purpose of treating COVID-19.

“There are thousands and thousands of studies being conducted, many reusing old drugs and some inventing new drugs,” he said. “The majority may prove to be unsuccessful.”

Public health expert Manfred Green described it this way: “An international commercial race has been set up to see who develops a vaccine first.”

He recently penned an op-ed with several colleagues that was published on the blog of the British Medical Journal.

“We believe that pharmaceutical companies should not be announcing preliminary results,” Green and his colleagues wrote. “This only raises the companies’ share on the stock market. Fundamental stages of the vaccine development process must not be skipped or under-reported.”

The piece described a situation in which the way vaccines are developed is “medically, socially and morally unclear,” and added that social media misinformation is harming the acceptability of a future viable vaccine.

A PEW Research Survey published last month found that 49% of US adults say they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated soon after a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. That number is much lower in Israel, where some 20% of the public said they “don’t think so” or are sure they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine – that survey was published in September by Assuta Medical Centers in conjunction with Midgam.

Tau explained that the number of patients willing to be vaccinated could be influenced by proper safety data being disseminated to the public by medical authorities.

“Increased mass communication to inform the public about vaccine availability, effectiveness and safety is crucial,” Green wrote in the op-ed.

Green told the Post that when it comes to medications and vaccines, there is “good news and bad news” that comes out frequently throughout the course of pre-clinical and clinical trials. Preliminary results can look promising and at a later stage the results can shift.

“It’s a real rollercoaster,” he said – and this has always been the case. But the situation has become more acute today, because instead of vaccine makers having five to 10 years to develop their products and long-term investments, in the coronavirus era, investors are giving funding and then pressuring developers to show results.

Of course, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. In the 1990s, the company EntreMed caused a similar stir.

In 1998, the company developed two anticancer compounds: Angiostatin and Endostatin. The former aimed to stop the development of blood vessels that tumors need to grow. The latter worked to stop other tumors from developing in the body.

At one stage, the company conducted an interim analysis of an early stage clinical trial it was running, and the media reported on those favorable results, indicating that the drugs the company was developing could be useful. Immediately the company’s stock began to surge.

In May 1998, CNN Money reported that “Shares of EntreMed Inc., a little-known biotechnology company, rocketed 330% Monday on news the upstart biotechnology firm found a cure for cancer in laboratory mice. Although experts cautioned the treatments may not produce the same results in humans, and a commercial version of the drug could take more than a decade to hit the market, investors scurried to acquire shares of the Rockville, Md.-based company.”

CNN reported that at one point the company’s shares soared as high as 85 before leveling off at around 39-3/4.

“The gain added a staggering $509 million to EntreMed’s market capitalization and ignited interest in other biotech stocks as well,” according to CNN.

Almost a year later, in February 1999, a writer for The Street published a piece evaluating what exactly had happened.

“Investors moving the stock price have been swayed more by media coverage than by the tiny Rockville, Md., biotech’s accomplishments,” the article reported. “What’s been lost in the press, however, has been any attempt to determine what the company is actually worth.”

The situation 20 years later is even more acute, with the way news travels through the world wide web.

Companies that publish preliminary information provide needed hope. But optimism is one thing, facts are another.

There will be no shortcut to conquering COVID-19.

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