Day one of the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference -- typically the biotech industry's biggest showcase of the year -- was something of a dud.
The Nasdaq Biotech Index (NBI) fell as much as 2 percent on Monday. That's not a rout, but it is a disappointment.
The sector was hit by a flurry of bad news just as the confab began. Companies involved in Crispr gene-editing technology fell after the revelation on Friday that some patients may develop an immunity to the technique. Axovant Sciences Ltd. on Monday said it would stop work on a brain drug that failed a key trial in September. And Ironwood Pharmaceuticals Inc. shares fell after it warned of lower-than-expected U.S. sales of its lead drug.
Meanwhile, Shire PLC delayed a possible split of its neurology and rare-disease businesses and said it wouldn't meet a "stretch" 2020 revenue goal it had set in 2015. Its shares fell 5 percent on Monday.
Major deal activity was limited to Celgene Corp.'s relatively small purchase of a drug that had been discarded by Sanofi and the revelation that Novo Nordisk A/S had made a rejected $3.1 billion bid for Ablynx NV. Investors were likely hoping for something meatier.
In this environment, even companies with neutral (or no) news were punished. For example, upbeat talk from Celgene, BioMarin Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. about the benefits of the new U.S. tax law went largely uncelebrated -- perhaps because said benefits have already been priced into the market. Of the 198 stocks in the NBI, 143 fell.
It's early days -- for both the conference and the year -- and things may turn around. Any deal of decent size would likely do the trick for sentiment. As in any year, most of the exciting stuff is happening behind the scenes. And while sentiment plays an outsize role in biotech valuations, scientific success matters a lot more. A modern record 56 novel drugs and biologics were approved by the FDA last year; if they hit the market and sell well, then that will do a lot to ease current tensions.
On the other hand, Monday's disappointments can be seen as the result of some underlying issues that may haunt the sector this year. Several of those novel FDA approvals are exciting new medicines that may be able to cure diseases in one shot, but have a highly uncertain commercial future. And some of the issues that played a role in Shire's reduced revenue goal -- increased generic competition and crowding in some branded drug classes -- will affect the entire industry.
The year isn't a lost cause. But this isn't the kick-off the industry wanted.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.
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