The Covid-19 pandemic caused huge disruption for European biotech in 2020, but the industry pulled through. Let’s look back at some of the top moments in the last 12 months.
After the many drug approvals, startup foundations, and venture capital highs we saw in 2019, it looked like 2020 was going to be a comfortable year for the biotech industry in Europe. Instead, a pandemic threw the global economy into disarray; its impact will likely be felt for decades.
In spite of this unexpected challenge, the biotech sector has emerged stronger than ever this year. In fact, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the industry, boosting interest in fields such as vaccines and infectious disease.
Some of the biotech areas that have emerged as winners this year include RNA therapeutics, gene therapy, and using artificial intelligence for drug discovery. In addition, companies developing meat alternative products have seen a surge in investments as the market expands, while immuno-oncology continues a fundraising glut year after year.
However, the situation hasn’t been great for the whole industry. Many small startups and nonprofit charities such as Cancer Research UK struggled to weather the pandemic chaos. A large number of biotechs grappled with clinical trial delays. And a big casualty of the year was French company MedDay Pharmaceuticals, which ceased operations after a crippling phase III failure in multiple sclerosis in March.
With the pandemic casting a long shadow, it was tough to weigh up the different biotech developments this year. Join us as we present the biggest moments of this year.
The media was taken by storm when a Cardiff-based research group discovered immune cells that could form the basis of a universal cell therapy for cancer. This discovery was snapped up by the UK startup Ervaxx, now called Enara Bio. Soon after, the academic group was hit by cyberattacks, likely as an attempt to access the research data.
The French investment firm Jeito Capital was born with a €200M fund to invest in biotech startups. In addition to the fund, the firm brought to life a nonprofit foundation to support healthcare startups with female founders.
The UK firm Exscientia and its Japanese collaborator Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma launched one of the first-ever phase I trials of a drug discovered with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) tools. The drug is designed to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, and took just 12 months to get to human testing rather than the several years it normally takes.
A team of scientists made brain cells in Italy send signals to electronic chips in Switzerland over the internet. This technology could one day let us connect our brains to machines over the internet, and develop implantable AI chips that rewire us to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
The German firm CureVac started the development of a vaccine for the emerging viral disease Covid-19. CureVac’s candidate is made from messenger RNA (mRNA), a type of technology that could allow fast and cheap manufacturing of vaccines.
The UK heavyweight Bicycle Therapeutics landed a deal with Genentech worth up to €1.6B. The partners aimed to pool their expertise to discover and commercialize cancer immunotherapies based on Bicycle’s peptide drugs, which are designed to combine the strong target-binding properties of antibodies with the ease of manufacturing of small molecules.
The German mRNA specialist BioNTech joined the fray of firms developing Covid-19 vaccines, teaming up with Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma to co-develop Covid-19 vaccine candidates in China and with Pfizer for the rest of the world. This solidified a trend of mRNA technology gaining the spotlight in the biotech industry.
The UK company Silence Therapeutics closed a massive €3.6B deal with the big pharma AstraZeneca. Together they began co-developing treatments that block disease-causing genes via a process called RNA interference (RNAi).
Defying the uncertainty brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dutch investment firm Life Science Partners announced one of the biggest ever European life sciences fundraises, with a neat €528M in the bank. The goal is to back up to 18 biotech and medical device companies at an early stage of development.
The FDA decided to impose no sanctions on Novartis following a data manipulation scandal in 2019. The scandal centered around the FDA approval of the gene therapy Zolgensma to treat spinal muscular atrophy, as falsified data had been discovered in the application. In May 2020, Zolgensma would be approved for the same indication by the EMA.
A drug developed by the Swiss pharma company Idorsia reduced insomnia in a phase III trial, where it proved to be the first drug to lack the ‘hangover’ effects of many current sleep medications. Following another successful phase III trial in July, Idorsia began preparations to commercialize the drug.
A €114M Series B was closed to finance the development of Belgian firm iTeos Therapeutics’ cancer immunotherapy drugs. This came just a month after the immuno-oncology field saw another huge €117M Series B by the UK company Immunocore. iTeos Therapeutics would later follow up in July with a €165M IPO on the Nasdaq.
After months of delay, the French company Genfit finally announced that its drug to treat the liver condition NASH had failed in a phase III trial. In September, Genfit would reveal plans to abandon the NASH program, lay off 40% of its workforce, and focus on different programs.
The Swiss company ADC Therapeutics beat its €172M target in a Nasdaq IPO, raising €215M. The company is using the money to fund the commercialization of its lead antibody-drug conjugate candidate for blood cancer. In September, ADC Therapeutics would go on to apply for FDA approval.
The big pharma company MSD absorbed the Austrian vaccine specialist Themis Biosciences. In doing so, MSD dived into the Covid-19 vaccine race with Themis’ Covid-19 contender. The big pharma also got hold of Themis’ other vaccine programs, including a phase III-ready candidate for the mosquito-borne condition chikungunya.
The immuno-oncology field saw yet more cash in the form of a €3.4B deal between US giant AbbVie and the Danish antibody developer Genmab. The deal focused on three phase I-stage bispecific antibody drugs that boost the ability of immune T cells to destroy tumor cells.
The German government took the unusual step of acquiring a 23% stake in CureVac for €300M. This was widely seen as a move to prevent CureVac from being acquired after US President Donald Trump allegedly bid to take over CureVac and its Covid-19 vaccine candidate. CureVac’s ongoing cash influx would culminate in a €180M Nasdaq IPO in August.
The UK Supreme court decided to revoke key patents held by the US antibody giant Regeneron in response to an appeal by the UK firm Kymab. It was a landmark ruling in a patent war that had been raging for seven years. The revoked patents related to the production of antibody drugs in mice and were seen by Kymab’s supporters as stifling small innovators in the biotech industry.
Amid a wave of biotech companies launching IPOs in 2020, the German firm Immatics stood out as one of the minority that went public without an initial public offering. Instead, the company listed via merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), which offers a more stable alternative to IPOs.
Pharmaceutical companies and public funders pooled their resources to create the AMR Action Fund, an €870M money pot that would fuel the development of new antibiotics. This was an attempt to shore up a neglected antibiotics sector as the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs grows ever more commonplace.
The EMA approved its first Covid-19 treatment: Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir. This was based on initial studies suggesting the drug shortened recovery time in Covid-19 patients. However, growing evidence has since questioned the drug’s benefits on Covid-19 mortality and hospital stays.
The FDA rejected two treatments for inflammatory conditions. The first was a skin patch treating peanut allergies from the French company DBV Technologies. The second was a rheumatoid arthritis drug developed by Gilead and the Belgian company Galapagos that would however go on to be approved in the EU and Japan a month later.
The UK company Oxitec received the regulatory go-ahead for the first US pilot study of genetically modified mosquitoes that can prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. At the same time, the nonprofit World Mosquito Program found that its own non-genetically modified mosquito strain reduced dengue transmission by an impressive 77% in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Just a few weeks after World Hepatitis Day, the first-ever drug for hepatitis D, developed by the German firm MYR Pharmaceuticals, was given conditional approval by the EMA. MYR Pharmaceuticals went on to be acquired by Gilead for up to €1.45B in December, with the possibility of a quick FDA approval on the horizon.
Roche took over the Irish biotech Inflazome for €380M, in a bid for a class of drugs called NLRP3 inhibitors to treat inflammatory diseases. Big pharma companies have made a handful of acquisitions in this field as NLRP3 inhibitors have the potential to tackle a wide range of inflammatory conditions.
The UK company Compass Pathways raised €108M in a Nasdaq IPO to fund the commercialization of psychedelic drugs for treating clinical depression. This IPO was followed in November by a €105M Series C round raised by the Berlin-based ATAI Life Sciences, another psychedelics player that owns a stake in Compass Pathways.
The Alzheimer’s field received a major blow when an antibody drug developed by the Swiss firm AC Immune and Genentech failed in phase II. These were the first phase II results from an Alzheimer’s antibody drug that targets a protein called tau, leading some to ask whether this approach might prove as unsuccessful as the traditional path of targeting a protein called amyloid beta.
The European Circular Bioeconomy Fund launched with a target size of €250M to accelerate the scaleup and commercialization of technology that could turn trash, such as food waste, into valuable products. This was part of a greater effort to meet sustainability targets in the EU’s Green New Deal.
The Israeli company BiondVax saw its hopes for a universal flu vaccine dashed in phase III, and its stock price plummeted. This failure was particularly poignant given the incoming threat of the winter season and the difficulties of tackling both winter flu and Covid-19.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two prominent developers of the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. Meanwhile, the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to three scientists who paved the way for treatments for hepatitis C.
The frontrunner Covid-19 vaccines from Western countries began to complete phase III trials. In the lead were BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, whose mRNA candidates were over 90% effective at preventing Covid-19 infections. Trailing behind was a candidate developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which scored 70% protection overall.
The Dutch firm uniQure released the first-ever phase III results of a gene therapy to treat the blood clotting disorder hemophilia B. The treatment reduced the need for clotting protein replacement injections — a part of life for hemophilia patients — by 96%.
There was a burst of venture capital funds announced within a short time period from several investment firms, including TVM Capital and Jeito Capital. In December, this would be followed by huge investments in Forbion and the BioInnovation Institute, indicating a big uptick in VC fundraising as the year ended.
The UK became the first Western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, with BioNTech and Pfizer’s candidate rolling out within days of the announcement. Fast on the UK’s heels, Canada and the US also approved the same vaccine within weeks. The EMA, meanwhile, expects to make a decision on the 21st December.
Merck KGaA recruited the UK biotech Artios Pharma in a colossal €5.7B deal to discover and co-develop drugs against up to eight cancer targets. Artios specializes in developing cancer drugs that prevent tumor cells from repairing their DNA, called DNA damage response inhibitors.
In a strike for the antibody-drug conjugate field, Boehringer Ingelheim purchased the Swiss biotech NBE Therapeutics for an impressive €1.2B. This bagged Boehringer Ingelheim the company’s whole pipeline, including a candidate in phase I testing for treating breast cancer.
As we move into 2021, Covid-19 will continue to take up a lot of attention in the biotech industry. National healthcare systems and vaccine developers will wrestle with the daunting challenge of rolling out vaccines around the world to those in need. Additionally, we will likely see newer Covid-19 vaccines that can solve many problems of the first mRNA vaccines, such as keeping them stable when stored at fridge and room temperatures.
As investors become more risk-averse, we could see more money going to established VC funds and companies, and new contenders will likely fall through the cracks. This could create a challenge for innovation going forward.
That said, the biotech industry will probably progress in leaps and bounds. Many new investors are entering the sector as they are reminded of the importance of healthcare innovation and sustainability. Furthermore, we may continue an accelerated transition towards running labs and clinical trials remotely.
One thing is certain: the biotech industry is going to undergo a big transformation.