News the other day that a Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech firm had launched preliminary tests on a COVID-19 vaccine was enough to move the markets. Let’s hope it bodes well. But we’ve seen false starts before, so caution should prevail.
The company, Moderna, is working on a vaccine that showed some encouraging results, with a trial of eight people who took the prototype drug and produced antibodies that killed off the virus in a laboratory. That was enough to boost the company’s stock by 20 percent and help move the Dow Jones industrial average by four percent.
It’s early in the development of any reliable medical trials, and there’s good reason to be suspicious about what health researcher William Haseltine, writing in “The Washington Post,” called “publication by press release.”
The search for quick, easy scientifically valid solutions to complex social and medical problems is understandable. Never more so than these days, when the country and the world remain in a partial state of limbo. There’s widespread uncertainty among government decision makers as to the proper course of action with a virus as elusive and as common as this one. Health officials have generally counseled extreme caution while some politicians have been reckless if not outright malicious in their counseling public behavior.
How nice if a magic cure would present itself to cut through the morass. Unfortunately, that’s not how medical science works.
I’m reminded of this having just spent the last two days reading an account of a previous effort at a sort of miraculous medical breakthrough that promised – and failed – to deliver. The book is “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou. The book, published in 2018 and now out in paperback, documents the fate of a start-up company, Theranos, and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. The company quickly became a “cause celebre” among venture capitalists eager to invest in a promising new technology that simplified testing procedures. The goal was to facilitate complex diagnostics through a desk-top unit that could undertake multiple tests on the basis of a single drop of blood from a patient. It was to be quick, easy, cheap and capable of linking into networks of retail medical providers without requiring cumbersome laboratory procedures or the painful extraction of a vial or two of blood.
Starting in 2003, privately-held Theranos attracted attention, investors, and ultimately a board of directors that included such luminaries as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and retired four-star general James N. Mattis (who would go on to serve as Secretary of Defense, 2017-2019). Too bad none of them knew anything about biotech. They and much of Silicon Valley were mesmerized by the promises made by Holmes. A Stanford University dropout after her freshman year, she was driven, focused and obsessed with duplicating the success of her idol, Apple’s Steve Jobs.
Unfortunately, Theranos’ product never properly functioned. It was unreliable, subject to overheating or mishandling its tiny sample and needed backup from commercially available lab machinery. Holmes and her immediate business cohorts hid this failure behind a wall of secrecy, intimation and deception, even while they attracted investors.
Ultimately, it all came crashing down, in large part through investigative reporting initiated by Carreyrou that ran in the “Wall Street Journal” – despite highly-lawyered efforts by Theranos to quash publication. Holmes and her immediate partners now face federal charges and go to trial in California in July 2020. It will be interesting to see if concerns for the pandemic work their way into their defense.
The apparent fraud perpetrated by Theranos was made possible by advisors and employees who told her what she wanted to hear rather than what the scientific evidence revealed. It hardly matters if they did so out of fear of retribution or because they wanted to advance their own careers. Fact is they lied, recklessly endangering the health of patients and the portfolios of investors. The line that caught my attention as relevant today was this warning by the author: “just because you badly wanted something to be real didn’t make it so.” (p. 159).