What being stricken with Covid-19 taught a biotech CEO

On March 14, at 10 a.m., I got the call that I had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. At first, I was incredulous, trying to understand where I might have contracted it. Next, I got worried. Who had I been in contact with that I might have transmitted the virus to? Finally, I faced a nagging feeling that maybe, at 47 years of age and male, I might be at risk of a bad outcome.

I also had my company to think about. Apellis had more than 275 employees and two programs in Phase 3 clinical testing. I became gravely concerned about what a global pandemic would mean for our company. I also worried for our industry, as the complexities and hardships caused by the pandemic would not be specific to just our company.

Top of mind were our OAKS and DERBY trials, with target enrollments of 600 patients each and the potential to create the first treatment for geographic atrophy (GA), the advanced form of macular degeneration, a blinding disease that affects 1 million people in the United States alone. GA affects the very category of individuals at higher risk of developing serious complications from Covid-19: the elderly. How were these patients going to get to the clinic to complete our enrollment, which was oh-so-close to the finish line? And what could we do to make sure that those who were already enrolled could safely receive their treatments, which require a monthly office visit to a retinal practice?

As these and many other questions swirled through my head, I spoke with our board of directors. We decided that radical transparency was needed. I created a video to share my diagnosis with the Apellis community and also published a post on LinkedIn. The positive response was overwhelming, filled with understanding and empathy. The support and zeal coming from the Apellis employees touched me deeply.

It was time for action, but I was sick. Not too bad, initially. Good enough for phone calls and emails. But after seven days, when I thought I was getting better, I spoke with a dear friend and physician in the Netherlands who warned me of the “second phase.” It struck that evening. For four days, I was sicker than I had ever been. I was hurting terribly in every part of my body. I completely lost my sense of taste and smell. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was over. I was exhausted for another ten days but on the mend.

I was fortunate that Covid-19 affected me much less than so many others, and equally fortunate that Apellis held its own. Our employees remained safe and resilient, and did an extraordinary job of ensuring the safety of our patients in our clinical trials.

As I look back on my experience with Covid-19 as both a patient and CEO, a few observations are branded in my mind:

The biotech world is a place of wonder. Our world is populated by men and women who study for decades and work night and day to bring new medicines to people who need them. In the past few decades, our industry has too often been in the news for the wrong reasons and — based on a few bad actors — has been cast as an industry that profits at the expense of people’s health. This image belies the dedication of the overwhelming majority of those who work to discover new medicines.

Never was this more apparent than now, when countless companies are engaging in record time to test hundreds of possible approaches to contain the pandemic.

But there’s another entity that deserves equal recognition: Innovation across biotech was made possible by the tireless dedication of the men and women at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory organizations who have been working urgently to combat the pandemic. Out of the spotlight, they have been heroes in helping to advance therapies for Covid-19.

What will the post-Covid-19 world look like? Initially, it will be hard. I am heartbroken by the tens of millions of Americans who were forced to file for unemployment. There’s a natural tendency to believe that this will be temporary and that we will go back to the way things were before as soon as the virus is under control. I doubt this will be the case. The nature of many businesses is likely to change forever.

In the midst of this bleak prospectus, however, it is important to focus on the positive. And there are many things to be excited about. I hope that the biopharmaceutical industry can be a shining example of how science can make the world a better place and how, when invisible enemies like SARS-CoV-2 ambush humanity, biotech is the first line of defense with the brightest and most dedicated people leading the charge.

What I wish from the bottom of my heart is that all of us come out of this crisis more aware, more present, and more grateful for the abundance we are given in this life. Because for a moment in time, in the early part  of 2020, we showed our best as humans toward one another and toward the immense need of the less fortunate among us.

As a society, as a planet, we have a lot of pain yet to go through, and the path to healing will be long. But through our journey to recovery, I hope and I am confident that we will remember the good lessons of the pandemic of 2020.

Cedric François is a Belgian physician-scientist and cofounder and CEO of Apellis, a global biopharmaceutical company pioneering targeted C3 therapies for conditions caused by the overactivation of the complement cascade, a part of the immune system that is believed to be at the root of many serious diseases.

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