Isis Pharmaceuticals Changes Its Name After Terrorists Attack Stock Price
Isis Pharmaceuticals announced Friday that it is finally changing its name to something that people won’t confuse with the terrorist group that took credit for the recent Paris attacks and other deadly episodes of violence.
In explaining its decision to change its name to Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the biotech company did not mention terror explicitly. But for the company formerly known as Isis Pharmaceuticals (ISIS) for the past 26 years—whose soon-to-be-changed ticker symbol “ISIS” is identical to the widely used acronym for the Islamic State—the rise of the terrorist network had clearly become a growing problem.
In June 2014, a Wall Street Journal article speculated that an association with negative press about ISIS terrorists might be to blame for a 7% drop in the pharma firm’s stock. Last month after the Paris attacks, CNNMoney raised the possibility that terrorists had again struck Isis Pharmaceuticals’ shares, which fell 4% despite no relevant news. Over the past year, the company’s stock has lost 2.3%, underperforming the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index, which has returned more than 6%, as well as the S&P Pharmaceuticals Select Industry Index, which is just slightly down.
A spokesman for the company dismissed the connection, saying that when it surveyed its institutional investors and stock analysts about whether calling itself Isis was a problem, none had any issue with the name. “We haven’t seen any evidence that our name had any impact on our stock price,” Wade Walke, vice president of communications and investor relations for the Carlsbad, Cali.-based drugmaker, told Fortune. He acknowledged, however, that the company received “lots of calls and emails” from individual retail investors urging it to change its name. “It came down to the point where we were starting to get concerned about the distraction of our name being associated with the terrorist group,” he said.
Even if investors could consciously distinguish between the pharmaceutical company and the terrorists, it’s still possible the confusion could have moved the market. As Fortune detailed in a recent magazine feature, “How Investors Are Using Social Media to Make Money,” in its annual Investor’s Guide, traders are increasingly using algorithms to scan social media and other websites for key terms, triggering computers to buy or sell stocks automatically. But the algorithms aren’t always sophisticated enough to tell the difference between Isis the stock and ISIS the terrorist organization.
Last year, Ionis’s CEO (which was then called Isis) Stanley Crooke told CNBC that sharing the name with terrorists “drives me crazy.” But he also expressed his reluctance to be influenced by the group, adopting a we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists sort of attitude. “I don’t feel that I want to capitulate to these terrorists by changing my name,” he said in the interview. “They can change their name.”
Since then, though, the company became concerned that any association with ISIS might pose additional risks to the safety or wellbeing of its employees, particularly if they were traveling, Walke said. He personally experienced the potential problems when he told a local police officer earlier this year that he worked for Isis, whose offices were nearby. The officer responded, “‘You mean the group that cuts people’s heads off?'” Walke recounted. “We want people when they hear or say our name to think about the incredible drugs we’re developing and not a terrorist group.”
While the biotech company’s name was originally chosen more than a quarter-century ago after the Egyptian goddess of health, the company’s new name Ionis doesn’t have any particular significance. The stock will begin trading under ticker symbol “IONS” next week on Dec. 22.