Picture: LifeSci Advisors

Vaccines burst 2021 biotech bubble

Despite a couple of notable 'firsts' for European public biotech financing, biotech's COVID-19 bubble may be about to burst. Virus fears pushed both private and public investors toward biotech, but vaccination successes have changed the sentiment. Now, it seems there are simply too many biotech companies, especially in Europe.

First, the good news. Genenta Science, built around the pioneering gene therapy at S. Raffaele Hospital in Milan, is set to become the first Italian bio­tech company to list on Nasdaq, having filed its SEC registration statement in November. Oxford Nanopore became the first UK company to IPO on the London Stock Exchange main board since Circassia back in March 2014. Investors enthusiastically  pushed the stock price up 40% on its first day of trading, adding over £500 million to the nearly £1 billion that Oxford Nanotech had raised since 2005.

But this will not mark a new dawn for UK public biotech companies. Oxford Nanopore makes high-tech DNA sequencing devices that you can touch, not mysterious drugs that require clinical studies. UK biotechs are much more likely to list on Nasdaq: Vaccitech, Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and ExScientia did so in 2021, although their share values now sit significantly below their listing prices. The global market downturn for biotech after August has been profound. The Nasdaq Biotech Index tracking over 200 biotech firms globally climbed throughout 2020 and was steady during the first part of 2021. But it fell around 10% between September and mid-November. Biotech IPOs dried up. Difficult news events became triggers to sell stock. European companies have been hit hardest.

BioNTech’s stock, which accounted for nearly half of the value of European biotechs on Nasdaq had its ups and downs. CureVac fell sharply in June on trial results showing its vaccine was less effective against newly evolved COVID-19 strains. Valneva navigated the cancellation of a supply agreement with the UK government which halved its stock price in mid-September, to double its valuation a month later on great Phase III trial results.

Meanwhile, the biotech market in Nordic nations has been eroded by the demise of Oncopeptides whose stock price fell from SEK 166 in January to SEK 17 in November following clinical trial setbacks. On top of that, the $8bn acquisition in September of Stockholm-listed rare diseases company Swedish Orphan Biovitrum (SOBI) by private equity buyers Advent International and GIC has been seen as a sign of retrenchment and consolidation in the sector, rather than expansion.

It seems Europe may have missed the main lesson of COVID-19 – that health underpins everything. As before, the new normal for biotech in 2022 will be straight competition for investor attention with industries that are less important, but give short-term returns and are easier to understand.

This article was originally published in European Biotechnology Magazine Winter Edition 2021.