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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Ex-Juul CEO Kevin Burns is in advanced talks to join SoftBank-backed digital pharmacy Alto, Axios has learned from multiple sources.

Why it matters: He'd be going from a company that was the scourge of public health officials to one that seeks to become an integral part of America's health care delivery system.

Résumé: Burns was a private equity executive with TPG Capital until leaving in 2014 to become president and COO of Greek yogurt company Chobani. He took over e-cigarette maker Juul in late 2017, before stepping down last September.

  • During his time at Juul, the company faced increased regulatory scrutiny and product bans. He also oversaw its sale of a 35% stake for $12.8 billion to Altria, which since has turned into an albatross around Altria's balance sheet.

Alto Pharmacy was founded in 2015 by Matt Gamache-Asselin, and operates as a digital drug distribution platform whose rivals include Amazon's PillPack.

  • It has raised around $350 million in venture capital, from firms like SoftBank Vision Fund, Jackson Square Ventures, Greenoaks Capital Partners, Olive Tree Capital, and Zola Global. The SoftBank investment was tranched-out, with the second piece coming within the past few weeks.
  • Gamache-Asselin and Burns first began talking as part of a COO search, but one of the job titles now being discussed is co-CEO. A formal board vote is likely within days.

The bottom line: Alto is betting that Burns' operational value will outweigh any blowback the decision prompts from customers, partners and employees.

Go deeper: Altria lost $8.6 billion on its Juul investment in just 14 months

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COVID-19 drives smell loss awareness, research

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The pandemic has thrust a relatively unknown ailment, anosmia — or smell loss — into the international spotlight.

Why it matters: Researchers hope smell testing becomes as standard as the annual flu shot, helping to detect early signs of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
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Why we need to know COVID's origins

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Geopolitical tensions are foiling efforts to get to the bottom of how COVID-19 originated.

Why it matters: Insights into how COVID-19 began can help us prevent future pandemics — especially if it involved any kind of leak or accident at a virology lab.