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What makes a drug company truly innovative?

April 16, 2021, 8:19 PM UTC

Good afternoon and happy Friday, readers!

As we head into the weekend, I want to highlight a list that Fortune has the privilege of publishing: IDEA Pharma’s Innovation and Invention index (broken up into twin indexes this year).

What’s special about this list is that isn’t all about dollars and cents. No, it’s a more intricate look at the foundations that drug makers, whether titans of the industry or scrappy upstarts, are laying for future growth and the innovation they’ve shown in their therapeutic pipelines (and successful market launches) over the course of the past few years.

If you want a full breakdown of the methodology, just head on over here to read the full list. You’ll also find some tidbits from a fascinating conversation I had with IDEA Pharma CEO Mike Rea on the broader pharmaceutical industry innovation trends. And, oddly enough, there’s an analogy to be made between what’s happening in drug development and the relationship between Disney and Pixar.

“The thing most people don’t realize about our industry is how little happens, you know, in terms of launching drugs,” Rea tells me. “So great companies launch one drug a year. If you think about Hollywood, or Pixar, launching one movie per year is regarded as great.”

The gist is that smaller, specialized and focused firms without massive payrolls and long-existing bureaucracies may, increasingly, be eating into the long-standing players’ dominance. (The big dogs are still doing just fine, to be clear, but there’s been a shift which could become more entrenched in the future.)

“I wonder whether that’s a big shift in our industry,” Rea says. “Which is that you don’t need the guys with the bank accounts anymore. Because you can launch rare disease drugs, you can launch oncology drugs, without needing a large pharma player.”

Read on for the day’s news, and enjoy the weekend. Back with you on Monday.

Sy Mukherjee
sy.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

DIGITAL HEALTH

mRNA may be here to stay. The story of messenger RNA (mRNA) is just as unlikely as the time that's gone into building out the technology. This kind of genetic-based, cellular-level model of drug development was scoffed at just a year ago. Now, it's helping fuel the global response to an unprecedented pandemic. mRNA therapeutics weren't only tailored to infectious diseases. In fact, companies like Moderna hope that it can be used in everything from cancer to heart drugs. But its impact in the vaccine space, as shown during this pandemic, could shake up vaccinology at large.“The promise that a nucleic acid vaccine gives is that it can be made so rapidly,” says John Nelson of General Electric. (Fortune)

INDICATIONS

What comes next for the J&J vaccine? A YouGov poll finds that confidence in Johnson & Johnson's COVID vaccine fell sharply following the FDA's and CDC's recommended pause on administering it due to blood clotting concerns. There are just a handful of cases of this particular (though serious) side effect out of the millions of doses administered and health officials have emphasized the move is out of an abundance of caution. Dr. Anthony Fauci said he expects the halt to end soon. But regulatory caution and public health messaging can often be at odds. What happens next will depend largely on the CDC's and FDA's recommendations. For instance, there might be followup guidance on the most high-risk groups for side effects, as the blood clotting issue appears to disproportionately affect women. (Fortune)

THE BIG PICTURE

Catching COVID after being vaccinated. The CDC reports that nearly 6,000 people have either gotten sick or tested positive for COVID two weeks or more after receiving both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. That's still a small sliver of the population given that millions of Americans have been vaccinated to date and just 29% of these immunized individuals who tested positive showed symptoms. Still, 74 people out of this group died, according to the CDC, underscoring the importance of continuing public safety measures such as wearing masks even if you're vaccinated. (Kaiser Health News)

REQUIRED READING

The U.S. and Britain are vaccinating at a blistering pace with different resultsby Vivienne Walt

COVID's educational impactby Chris Morris

The idea of COVID-19 vaccination passports raises privacy concernsby Fortune Editors