BIOTECHNOLOGY: Leaders’ Call for Free Access Jolts Stocks
Following a call from President Clinton and Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep raw gene-sequencing data "freely available to scientists everywhere," biotechnology and genomic stocks yesterday took a dive, the Wall Street Journal reports. Although the joint statement "simply codified a longstanding policy," shareholders dumped stocks in companies such as Celera Genomics, Inc., Millenium Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc., fearing that the statement "would prevent biotech entrepreneurs from developing proprietary gene-based products" (Langreth/King, 3/15). In his statement, Clinton said, "Already the Human Genome Project, funded by the United States and the United Kingdom, requires its grant recipients to make the secrets that they discover publicly available within 24 hours. I urge all other nations, scientists and corporations to adopt this policy and honor its spirit." Both leaders emphasized the "important" role of private firms in developing new medical treatments and said that they supported patents for "gene-based inventions" that will prove profitable for those companies. "In my lifetime, we'll go from knowing almost nothing about how our genes work to enlisting genes in the struggle to prevent and cure illnesses. This will be the scientific breakthrough of the century, perhaps of all time," Clinton said (Gillis, Washington Post, 3/15).
Statement to Settle Squabble
Some industry insiders said that the statement was intended to clarify the government's position on the contentious rivalry between Celera and the Human Genome Project, both of which are racing to be the first to unravel the entire human genetic map. The impetus behind the remarks might have also come from Dr. Michael Dexter, director of the British medical-charity Wellcome Trust, which along with NIH, funds the Human Genome Project. Dexter holds the view that ownership of the gene map "is mankind's and should not be owned by any one company, individual or country." The Human Genome Project and Celera last week broke off talks to collaborate on the trial. Celera President Craig Venter said the statement "unfairly" targeted his company. "We are puzzled by the statement and we think it represents the lack of insight and the confusion that has been generated out there. Our business is not in patenting the genome or tying it up" (Berenson/Wade, New York Times, 3/15).
Despite suffering the "second worst drop" in the Nasdaq's history, executive and analysts maintained that plummeting stock prices were simply evidence of investors' "overreaction" to the statement (Glanton, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/15). Incyte CEO Roy Whitfield called the remarks "extremely positive to us." He said, "What Clinton has said is not news. It's what the rules were all along. ... We hope it puts to bed the idea that the human genetic data could be controlled by anyone before entering the public domain." Incyte shares dropped 27% yesterday, closing at $143.50 (Jacobs, Los Angeles Times, 3/15). Paul Kelly of ING Barings Ltd. said, "it seems like (Clinton and Blair's comments) have stirred up a lot of concern among investors, but calls for open access in gene sequencing isn't new. Ultimately, the commercial value lies in being able to take that information and translate it into therapies anyway" (Guidera, Baltimore Sun, 3/15).