Mar 5, 2020

Axios Vitals

Good morning.

In case you've been living under a rock, there's a lot of news this week. and yet today‘s word count is still only 988, or a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Pharma is on a stock buyback spree
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Data: Company filings; Explore the data here; Chart: Axios Visuals

In 2018, the year the Republican tax law went into full effect, 12 of the largest pharmaceutical companies spent more money buying back their stock than they spent on drug research and development, Axios' Bob Herman reports.

The big picture: When billions of dollars became available to the biggest drug companies, their main priority was to juice earnings, along with the paydays of their executives and investors — not investments in new treatments or relief for patients who can't afford their drugs.

By the numbers: Axios analyzed the stock buybacks and R&D expenses of the 12 largest American pharmaceutical companies, by revenue, between 2016 and 2019.

  • These companies repurchased $69.1 billion of their stock in 2018, while spending $65.9 billion on researching new medicines.
  • Over the entire four-year period, stock buybacks for these 12 companies totaled $183 billion, and research expenses were $251 billion. They're sitting on another $47 billion that has been earmarked for stock buybacks.
  • Two drugmakers — Amgen and Biogen — spent more on stock buybacks for the entire period than they spent on R&D. Amgen's stock repurchases ($31.6 billion) were more than twice as much as research ($15.3 billion).

What they're saying: Amgen said in a statement that it repurchased large quantities of stock because the tax law allowed the company to bring home cash that was parked overseas. Biogen submitted a statement saying it has a "deep commitment to R&D," but did not address questions about its stock buybacks.

Go deeper: See the company-by-company analysis.

2. The latest on the coronavirus

Keeping up with the coronavirus is beginning to feel like drinking from a fire hose, so here is a roundup of what you need to know:

  • Companies that make products geared toward staying at home — think peanut butter, exercise bikes and telecommunication software — are the unexpected beneficiaries of the evolving coronavirus economy, Axios' Courtenay Brown reports.
  • Congress reached a deal on a bill that would give an additional $8.3 billion toward fighting the coronavirus. The House passed it yesterday, and the Senate is expected to vote today.
  • The outbreak has caught the U.S. and the world off guard, and it now threatens to break through all containment efforts. But far from being a surprise, the potential pandemic was utterly predictable, Axios Future editor Bryan Walsh writes.
  • As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, health care professionals are tapping germ-zapping robots and roving tele-doctors to help minimize human exposure to the virus, Axios' Joann Muller writes.
3. Health care stocks surge after Biden's big wins
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Data: Money.net; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Health care stocks soared Wednesday, led by double-digit percentage gains from major health insurers Anthem, Centene, Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealth Group, Bob writes.

The big picture: Nothing has changed with the health care industry, which is still printing money. But Joe Biden's Super Tuesday victories reassured Wall Street of his chances of beating Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All — and that a Biden presidency or a Trump re-election will keep the lucrative status quo in place.

Between the lines: The political prognostications of Wall Street and its trading algorithms have been all over the board in the past year.

  • The sentiment was especially sour last April after UnitedHealth called out Sanders' Medicare for All policy during an earnings call.

The bottom line: Medicare for All faces a lot of political hurdles in Congress, but so do Biden's reforms. Any changes will face a huge battle from an industry that is both deep-pocketed and politically connected.

4. Another new first for CRISPR

For the first time, scientists have used the gene-editing technique CRISPR inside the body of an adult patient, in an effort to cure congenital blindness, Bryan reports.

Why it matters: CRISPR has already been used to edit cells outside a human body, which are then reinfused into the patient.

  • But the new study could open the door to using gene editing to treat incurable conditions that involve cells that can't be removed from the body, like Huntington's disease and dementia.

Details: The research was sponsored by biotech companies Editas Medicine of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Allergan of Dublin, Ireland, and was carried out at Oregon Health and Science University.

  • Scientists led by Eric Pierce of Harvard Medical School injected microscopic droplets carrying a benign virus into the eye of a nearly blind patient suffering from the genetic disorder Leber congenital amaurosis.
  • The virus had been engineered to instruct the cells to create CRISPR machinery. The hope is that CRISPR will edit out the genetic defects that cause blindness, restoring at least some vision.
  • "We literally have the potential to take people who are essentially blind and make them see," Charles Albright, chief scientific officer at Editas, told AP.

"It gives us hope that we could extend that to lots of other diseases — if it works and if it's safe," National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins told NPR.

Go deeper: Genetic technology's double-edged sword

5. Female physicians more likely to die by suicide

Female physicians are at a greater risk of dying by suicide than male physicians, according a meta-analysis in JAMA.

The big picture: Certain physicians lead highly stressful careers, while most are extremely susceptible to burnout. Though doctors typically have good access to mental health services, the workplace culture stresses helping others before helping yourself, Axios' Marisa Fernandez writes.

The data, from nine British and U.S. studies, show the suicide mortality ratio for female physicians to general population at 1.46. For men the ratio was significantly less at 0.67.

Yes, but: The last analysis of physician suicide was in 2004, with most of the data accumulated from 1980 and a disproportionately male sample.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

6. America's school nurse and counselor shortage
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Reproduced from the ACLU using U.S. Department of Education data; Cartogram: Axios Visuals

An overwhelming majority of schools in the U.S. lack nurses and counselors to help students in need, per a 2019 ACLU report from Education Department data on every school district.

Why it matters: Children are reporting just as much stress as adults, with one in three reporting that they are feeling depressed, Marisa writes.

  • Students are 21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers for mental health than community mental health centers.
  • Especially in low-income districts where resources are scarce, these mental health providers at schools can be a district's first line of defense.

Go deeper: