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JPM sound bites, vol. 2: Mushy brains, chewing gum and walking, and that good old San Francisco weather

January 14, 2021 Carly Helfand


The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference may not have been as much fun as it typically is, given the whole “doing it alone at home” thing. But that didn’t stop us from rounding up even the passingly funny quotes we heard during presentations and interviews throughout the week.

We admit, the opportunities for humor this year were fewer and further between given the new virtual format. But never, ever underestimate biopharma executives’ desire to crack jokes about San Francisco weather, even in years they’re not experiencing it.

One quick note before we dive in: If you were looking for quotes about things like actual financial performance, you can find those in our coverage here.

  • J.P. Morgan analyst Cory Kasimov kicked off the conference by focusing one of the positive new changes to the presentation format—and basically admitting, as we recently proclaimed, that the old practice of switching rooms in a high-traffic area for Q&A sucked. “Following this presentation, we will have a Q&A session right here in this same Zoom room, so there’s no need to fight the crowd to get to the Borgia Room,” he told listeners. Hallelujah.
     
  • Just a few seconds later, Regeneron CEO Len Schleifer—never not wisecracking during his JPM slot—described the positives he was experiencing an account of scrapping the live event. “Normally, it’s this first 15 seconds where I look out at the audience and I get worried that no one’s paying attention and the room is half empty, or everyone’s looking at some news that some other company announced, and I get kind of that nauseated feeling in my stomach,” he said. This time? “I’m just assuming everyone is rapt in attention in front of your computers.”
     
  • Third Rock Ventures partner Abbie Celniker had an idea as to why it might be easier to focus from home. “I think there are a lot of things that will make people more interested in seeing a certain presentation—for example, if they’re not trying to figure out how to get up and down the stairs” at the Westin St. Francis, she said. 
     
  • At least one CEO never liked the old version of JPM to begin with. “I have yet to find a person who says they like J.P. Morgan. It’s a terrible meeting,” Kronos Bio helmsman Norbert Bischofberger said ahead of the conference, calling it “too large.” Harkening back to his days as Gilead’s chief scientific officer and R&D chief, he recalled that “we had at the Hilton close to the St. Francis, five rooms reserved. All of them were busy from 7:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night, every hour of the day there was a meeting in all of them, and at the end of that week, my brain was always mush. The next week, we had a debrief and honestly, I couldn’t even remember, was I there, really?” 
     
  • Bharatt Chowira, chief of business and strategy at PureTech Health, feels differently. “Personally, I find it quite important and useful,” he said of JPM. But “the logistics of it, the cost, the rain these last few years, going from hotel to hotel fully drenched and all that, I could do without.”
     
  • He’s not alone. “I heard from a number of people yesterday, ‘It’s so nice not to be running around in the rain in San Francisco,’ although I gather it was sunny this week,” Clovis CEO Pat Mahaffy said.
     
  • We don’t usually feature two sound bites from the same skipper, but at the same time, we at Fierce love a good pun. Of FAP-2286, Clovis’ peptide-targeted radionuclide candidate, Mahaffy said “the breadth of this program is breathtaking.” And for that reason, he wasn’t looking for buys at this year’s conference. “It would be foolish … to get distracted looking for something else. We have enough on our plate with this program,” he added.
     
  • Merck CEO Ken Frazier isn’t nearly as worried about Keytruda’s patent cliff as many of his investors are, but he recognized that in some ways, the company’s current strategy is exacerbating their fears. “From an execution standpoint, of course what we want to do is continue to make Keytruda bigger and bigger, which makes the problem more of a problem,” he said during a fireside chat.
     
  • Gilead CEO Dan O’Day was full of praise for his employees and what they achieved in 2020, which “of course is a year that none of us ever want to repeat again for a variety of reasons.” But “having said that, the organization did an amazing job of what I like to say is chewing gum and walking at the same time,” getting antiviral Veklury out into the world as a tool against COVID-19 while simultaneously executing on Gilead’s other objectives.
     
  • How can investors be sure Pfizer and partner BioNTech will hit their new 2021 COVID-19 vaccine output target of 2 billion doses? “We say what we mean and we mean what we say, so when we say something, we feel confident that we will be able to do that,” CEO Albert Bourla said during his own fireside chat.



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