Leaders in Seattle's life sciences community were growing more alarmed. They had seen the reports of a new virus pushing hospitals and healthcare workers to the brink in China. And though the virus for a time remained thousands of miles away, it had clearly arrived by February, when infections emerged in a suburb of Seattle.
"We were pretty concerned that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and that we needed to start thinking proactively," said Mitch Gold, CEO of local biotech Alpine Immune Sciences.
Indeed, the new coronavirus has since rapidly spread in Washington state. Seattle's home of King County has been particularly hard-hit, with 562 confirmed cases and 56 deaths as of Mar. 18. Gov. Jay Inslee, in an effort to curb the number of infections, announced this week an emergency proclamation to close all the state's restaurants, bars, and entertainment facilities until the end of the month. Schools are also closed, as they are in 43 other states across the country.
Other biotech hubs are facing similar challenges. San Francisco has a shelter-in-place order in effect until early April. Massachusetts, which hosts the largest concentration of biotechs in the country, has been in a state of emergency since Mar. 10.
Washington, though, had the first confirmed case of the virus in the U.S., putting it on the frontline of the epidemic about a week or two ahead of other states. It's a position that forced the area's drugmakers to act quickly; for example, Alpine decided against going to a healthcare conference hosted by Cowen & Co. in Boston — an event that was later found to have multiple attendees who tested positive for the virus.
"We felt like we were right in the thick of it in Seattle, at the beginning of a crisis, and I don't think the East Coast, particularly Boston and New York, felt like they were there yet," Gold said.
Skipping the conference was just one action Alpine took in response to the virus' spread. Like many of its peers — among them Seattle Genetics, the city's largest biotech — it barred nonessential travel for employees. It also established an optional work-from-home policy earlier in the Seattle outbreak, but recently made that a mandate, as health authorities stressed the need for social distancing.
"It definitely is going to have an impact on the culture of the company," Gold said. "It's a new normal that we're just going to have to get through and hope that it'll only be a short time when we get back to being in the workplace together."
For now, Alpine is holding its regularly scheduled company meetings with Zoom video conferencing. Senior management holds a call every afternoon, according to Gold, in which they discuss the implications of the virus on the company's workforce.
Empty offices are one symptom of the virus, though the lights aren't totally off. Scientists still need lab space and equipment to do their jobs, which presents an obstacle for companies attempting to go remote.
Gold said Alpine is exploring several options, including a staggered schedule that would have employees come in based on their home and childcare situations. But the plan is a "fluid work in progress." Bluebird Bio, which shares a Seattle office with Alpine, now has its workers come in shifts to minimize contamination risks and ensure their safety, a spokesperson said.
Yet a potential challenge for small and even medium-sized biotechs is that a significant portion of their employees are in research and development roles. Of Alpine's almost 60-person workforce, about 20 are laboratory personnel. Across town, almost a quarter of the 258 full-time employees who worked at Omeros Corp. by the end of last year were in R&D. Seattle Genetics came into 2020 with just over 1,000 R&D staff, much more than its 300 workers in administrative positions.
Research programs are nevertheless continuing, though industry watchers seem to agree that the virus will end up slowing clinical trial enrollment as well as data readouts. Already, a few biotechs outside of Seattle have reported delays, including Provention Bio, Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals and Iveric Bio.
"That is the number one question we get: Are we still on time?" said Hilary Hehman, associate vice president of strategic partnerships at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Drugmakers, and especially biotechs, often rely on large research centers like Fred Hutch and contract research organizations, known as CROs, to run their clinical trials. And it's critical, particularly to smaller companies and their venture backers, that those studies don't slip, Hehman said.
"They need to continue to raise money," she said, "and raising money is predicated on producing data and showing results. So they're a little bit more acutely focusing on timelines, just to make sure they can prove to their potential investors that the programs are still on track and moving forward."
In a Mar. 12 interview, Hehman said essential research employees were still coming in, and that Fred Hutch hadn't needed to push back timelines for any of its studies. Notably, though, the center has since asked every lab at its main campus to keep their on-site research teams to an "absolute minimum," and plans to temporarily move almost all on-site lab work to remote through at least mid-April.
Patient enrollment into trials, except for those testing drugs with demonstrated efficacy, will be suspended, the institute said.
Seattle biotechs, too, are bracing for trial delays and more disruption as the outbreak spreads. A Bluebird spokesperson said the company is "managing through potential impact to our plans, trial recruitment and general business operations."
Alpine, which coordinates with CROs on clinical trials, doesn't expect the new coronavirus to impact two studies it's running that are on the cusp of enrolling patients — though Gold admits that stance could change.
"If you extrapolate what happened in China, you could expect that, at some point, centers would use their resources to deal with the outbreak as opposed to enroll clinical trials," he said.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus is changing the direction of research at HDT Bio. The Seattle-based biotech startup, which employs about a dozen people, disclosed in mid-February that it had been using RNA technology to develop a vaccine against the virus.
Though HDT is continuing work on its other programs in cancer and infectious disease, Chief Operating Officer Chris Pirie said the company is reallocating resources toward the coronavirus vaccine candidate. So far, investors haven't pressed HDT about potential timeline delays for its other projects, according to Pirie. If anything, there's been an influx of interest from the certain segments of the investing community, he said.
"I don't think you will see any investors or partners or granting agencies coming to you, the biotech company, asking, 'Why aren't you making timely progress on my program or my award when this is going on?' he said. "Because, frankly, I think the alternative is to send everybody home."