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China’s loosened COVID-19 policies – following years of aggressive lockdowns and quarantines – have left the country vulnerable

Strict lockdowns, quarantines and testing have prevented many people in China from catching COVID-19. With concerns over Chinese vaccine efficacy and uptake,…

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The Chinese government has loosened restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Kevin Frayer/Stringer via Getty Images

After nearly three years of aiming to eliminate COVID-19 through mass lockdowns, robust contact tracing programs and international travel bans, the Chinese government has announced it is rolling back the “zero-COVID” policies that helped suppress the spread of the coronavirus in the country. The Chinese Communist Party announced these changes on Dec. 7, 2022, as rates of COVID-19 are on the rise in major cities, following protests demanding the end of zero-COVID policies.

The situation in China stands in stark contrast to the trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S. SARS-CoV-2 emerged with a bang, but thanks to a strong vaccination effort and the fact that a large portion of U.S. residents have been infected with the coronavirus, COVID-19 cases seem to be reaching somewhat of a steady state and normal life has mostly resumed.

I am a medical anthropologist who studies public health trends in China from an epidemiologic and social perspective.

After largely containing the coronavirus in 2020, China began enforcing a strict zero-COVID policy leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2022. The result is that China has not followed the standard path of a pandemic where people slowly gain immunity through exposure or vaccination, allowing society to open up over time. Combined with questions about the efficacy of China’s vaccines and comparatively low vaccination rates, many public health experts think that China will be hit hard by the coronavirus as the country rapidly lifts its zero-COVID policy.

A health worker checking a traveller at a checkpoint.
After the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019, the Chinese government severely limited travel in the region of Wuhan. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

China’s initial reaction to COVID-19

Public health campaigns and control of emerging disease in China are entirely [reliant on and directed by the government], which promotes health both for the good of the people and the nation. When COVID-19 emerged, the Chinese government was quick to institute mask-wearing policies and testing regimens, and it locked down the city of Wuhan and the surrounding region where the coronavirus originated. With only the aid of these nonpharmaceutical interventions, the Chinese government was very successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 after the initial wave hit Wuhan.

From the time China started recording cases in late December 2019, until the government ended its initial period of lockdown in April 2020, the government documented 82,000 cases of COVID-19 and just over 3,300 deaths. Though not officially called a zero-COVID policy at the time, the control measures were born out of a goal of eliminating COVID-19 from the country.

A line of people waiting to be swabbed for COVID-19.
In the months leading up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics, China began ramping up zero-COVID measures, including mandatory testing requirements. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Ramping up zero-COVID

Life returned to normal in China after the initial wave of COVID-19 ravaged Wuhan. For most of 2020 and the first half of 2021, Chinese people were out and about in shopping malls, restaurants and bars.

During this same period, the coronavirus was rampaging across the U.S, Europe and other regions of the world, leading many health experts to say that the lockdowns in China, though brutal, were successful. Between May 2020 and August 2021, people in China saw COVID-19 as a distant threat and supported the government’s actions.

The situation changed in August 2021 when the Chinese government officially adopted what it calls the “Dynamic zero-COVID” strategy to combat the new delta variant. This strict prevention policy included provisions for mass lockdowns aimed at eliminating the disease in a particular region, even if just a small number of cases were found.

China ramped up enforcement of the policy as the 2022 Winter Olympics approached. A single case could trigger a massive lockdown where the government would severely limit people’s movement and enforce quarantines, as occurred several times in Shanghai Disney. In some instances, people were held in stores or office buildings for several days after exposure to an infected person.

Summer and fall 2022 were relatively quiet, with only around 1,000 confirmed infections per day. But since early November 2022, COVID-19 cases in China have climbed steadily, with more than 35,000 new cases detected per day in the first week of December.

Chinese president Xi Jinping with people in masks behind him.
Following a wave of protests in late November and early December, the Chinese Communist Party announced that it would roll back some of the strictest travel limitations and quarantine requirements. Jack Taylor/Pool Photo via AP

What happens next?

As of early December, COVID-19 rates in China were still relatively low compared to many places, including the U.S.. But China faces some unique challenges thanks to low levels of immunity in the population and a disease control strategy that prioritized nonpharmaceutical interventions like mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent testing over vaccine administration.

To date, 90% of the population in China has been vaccinated. Older people have been more reluctant, though, and only 66% of those over 80 have received two doses of a vaccine. A further concern arises from studies indicating that China’s vaccines may not be as effective as the mRNA vaccines used in the West. So far, China has not been willing to import and administer Western mRNA vaccines.

In addition to concerns over vaccination, the zero-COVID policy has, to a large extent, successfully suppressed the coronavirus in China. The result is that since most people have not been exposed to the virus, they have not had a chance to develop immunity. This has likely left the country very susceptible to a large outbreak.

There is also a social dimension to the problems facing China today. Recurring lockdowns over the past year have damaged the economy and lessened peoples’ patience with restrictive policies. Despite government efforts to limit access to outside information, people in China are learning that most other countries are functioning normally. Maintaining stringent zero-COVID policies has become increasingly difficult, as they wear on a populace that wants life to return to normal.

The Dec. 7 announcement to ease COVID-19 restrictions is a continuation of a trend a few weeks in the making, but has been seen by many as a response to the widespread protests. Testing centers are closing and infected people are now allowed to quarantine at home for the first time since the pandemic began. The digital health passes, issued to people who tested negative through daily PCR tests, are also no longer required to enter public places.

In much of the world, COVID-19 has followed that natural trajectory of a pandemic. The story is different in China. The relaxation of zero-COVID policies may bring China more in line with the rest of the world in terms of what the people there can do, but the virus also gets a chance to run its natural course now that government actions will not suppress the spread. It is likely that in the coming months, the Chinese people will face the pain and suffering that many other places experienced in 2020 and 2021.

Elanah Uretsky does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Glimpse Of Sanity: Dartmouth Returns Standardized Testing For Admission After Failed Experiment

Glimpse Of Sanity: Dartmouth Returns Standardized Testing For Admission After Failed Experiment

In response to the virus pandemic and nationwide…

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Glimpse Of Sanity: Dartmouth Returns Standardized Testing For Admission After Failed Experiment

In response to the virus pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter riots in the summer of 2020, some elite colleges and universities shredded testing requirements for admission. Several years later, the test-optional admission has yet to produce the promising results for racial and class-based equity that many woke academic institutions wished.

The failure of test-optional admission policies has forced Dartmouth College to reinstate standardized test scores for admission starting next year. This should never have been eliminated, as merit will always prevail. 

"Nearly four years later, having studied the role of testing in our admissions process as well as its value as a predictor of student success at Dartmouth, we are removing the extended pause and reactivating the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admission, effective with the Class of 2029," Dartmouth wrote in a press release Monday morning. 

"For Dartmouth, the evidence supporting our reactivation of a required testing policy is clear. Our bottom line is simple: we believe a standardized testing requirement will improve—not detract from—our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus," the elite college said. 

Who would've thought eliminating standardized tests for admission because a fringe minority said they were instruments of racism and a biased system was ever a good idea? 

Also, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. More from Dartmouth, who commissioned the research: 

They also found that test scores represent an especially valuable tool to identify high-achieving applicants from low and middle-income backgrounds; who are first-generation college-bound; as well as students from urban and rural backgrounds.

All the colleges and universities that quickly adopted test-optional admissions in 2020 experienced a surge in applications. Perhaps the push for test-optional was under the guise of woke equality but was nothing more than protecting the bottom line for these institutions. 

A glimpse of sanity returns to woke schools: Admit qualified kids. Next up is corporate America and all tiers of the US government. 

Tyler Durden Mon, 02/05/2024 - 17:20

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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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