As Virus Spreads to U.S., Tekmira CEO Answers Ebola Questions

Xconomy Seattle — 

Two weeks after Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TKMR) announced that its experimental drug was being used to treat Ebola patients, CEO Mark Murray said today that developing the drug has been like swimming in “shark infested waters” but gave no updates about the patients or about future use of the drug.

It was the first of two planned appearances by Murray today at a biotech investor conference in San Francisco. He is also scheduled to give a presentation at 4 p.m. local time.

Tekmira revealed September 22 that U.S. and Canadian authorities gave it emergency clearance to use its experimental drug, TKM-Ebola, in the growing health crisis. The Vancouver, BC-based company said at the time that “a number of patients” had been treated, including Richard Sacra, an American infected in Liberia and treated in Nebraska.

It was reported by Xconomy and other media outlets yesterday and today that two people in the U.S., including the first case diagnosed on American soil, have subsequently been treated with a different drug, made by North Carolina biotech Chimerix.

Based on that information, perhaps, Tekmira shares have fallen sharply today, down 5.25 percent to $22.74. Before today’s drop, however, the company’s stock price has benefitted greatly from the recent outbreak. It went from $8.98 a share in July to a high of $29.53 last week.

Mark Murray, CEO of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals

Mark Murray, CEO of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals

Murray said nothing today about the U.S. Ebola cases, or any other specific case. He kept his comments general, describing briefly how Tekmira’s TKM-Ebola drug works, its sources of funding, and his views of the crisis and the response to it.

He praised the FDA as “wanting to move the ball forward.” When asked about the medical response to the outbreak, which began early this year, he said, “I think people believed they were ready until it actually happened, and then they weren’t ready.” There have been many therapeutic agents and vaccines in early development, he said, but they weren’t prioritized and “fell off the table.”

Tekmira has also joined an international consortium funded by the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust to set up Ebola clinical trials in West Africa. But Murray didn’t sound optimistic about making those trials happen, let alone gaining valuable information from them.

“Most of the medical infrastructure there is now really on its heels,” he said. To do a study that produces data “recognizable” by the company and regulators would be challenging. “It has to be controlled in some fashion, while addressing ethical and practical considerations. It would be very difficult,” he said.

The company’s Ebola program has been fully funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. That includes work to make the drug into a powder that doesn’t need refrigeration and to build the capacity to manufacture it in commercial quantities. Those techniques, however, can be re-used in Tekmira’s other drug programs, which include treatments for cancer and hepatitis B.

Murray made his “shark infested waters” comment when describing the task of navigating between government agencies, which have different culture and organizational priorities than a small fast-moving biotech, and his investors, who are skeptical of the value of developing a drug for a disease that affects people in poor countries.

Murray was on stage at the BIO Investor conference in San Francisco, an annual two-day biotech meeting in San Francisco that many private and small public biotechs use to get their message across to potential investors. He was interviewed by an official from the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group, the show’s sponsor. He did not take questions after the talk.

Tekmira officials did not respond to questions via email in time for publication.