At the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference for biotech investors in San Francisco this January, I was huddling with my colleagues on Johnson & Johnson’s external global leadership team when our executives from Shanghai and Australia shared scuttlebutt about a virus disrupting J&J’s Asia operations. Another SARS epidemic, I told myself: a serious but regional outbreak.
Foreboding news closer to home suggested otherwise. An Episcopal priest in the nation’s capital tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Concern quickly spread through the congregation that parishioners were becoming sick — some very sick. My daughter Isabella’s elementary school, which is part of the National Cathedral and the Episcopal diocese, abruptly canceled classes four days before its scheduled spring break.
Still, I remembered how the school had shut down for a week last Thanksgiving because of a norovirus scare. Maybe this was like that, I told myself.
It’s interesting the negotiating we do with ourselves as we try to process a paradigm-shifting catastrophe. As a pediatric resident at Children’s National Medical Center on 9/11, I remember watching from a hospital break room as the Pentagon exploded. The hospital went on lockdown as we tried to figure out if the Pentagon’s day care center had been hit — thank God, it hadn’t.
A few weeks later we dealt with huge lines in the emergency department when the anthrax attacks happened. Postal workers in the Washington, D.C., processing and distribution center waited hours, not to see if they were affected but to be certain their children were not. It was all so surreal.
Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from “Biotechnology In the Time of COVID-19: Commentaries from the Front Line” (Rosetta Books, June 2020), 47 essays by thought leaders in the biotechnology industry collected by Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and chair of BIO’s board of directors for the 2019-2020 term. A free download of the book is available on Amazon Kindle worldwide during the BIO Digital Conference (June 8-12) and the Rare Drug Development Symposium (June 11-12).
As the scope and lethality of the Covid-19 pandemic became apparent, my internal negotiator tried to balance my desire to be a responsible public health leader with my maternal impulse to worry and protect. I tried to rely on my scientific knowledge and not overreact. I didn’t want to scare Isabella. But she, too, realized the coronavirus was not like norovirus or the flu when we were forced to cancel our spring break ski trip 12 hours before our flight’s scheduled departure because the lodge had closed the slopes.
I explained to Isabella that the virus did not seem to hit children as hard. And I told her we would do everything in our power as a family to stay safe. Still, she struggled to understand why she couldn’t see her friends, with whom she had played with just days before. She had some nightmares — as did her mother.
Yet this pandemic grounded me and brought me home, after years of sometimes-grueling world travel across China, Singapore, South America, and Europe. It made me reflect on the importance of family and community. My wonderful husband, Sebastian, a large-animal veterinarian, had a eureka moment: Let’s make fruit care packages for seniors in our Forest Hill neighborhood. I knew that something about these small acts of kindness would reverberate.
They did. But they also revealed the fear that people were living with.
I knew what that fear felt like because my college sweetheart and first husband, Peter, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 4. He had spent so much of his 20s and 30s working harder than you can imagine staying healthy enough to preserve his vital organs while scientists devised a cure. Peter was running through his precious lung capacity when a new, promising therapy started to emerge. He entered a clinical trial for it, though we were terrified he might be inhaling placebo every day.
Luckily, he started feeling much better. When the trial was unblinded, we discovered that he had received the real drug and the results of the study showed that it really was a breakthrough.
At the time there was growing interest in cystic fibrosis, but that interest was dwarfed by interest in diseases that could mobilize celebrities and activists. What I learned from that — your access to the scientific, intellectual, and fiscal capital required to fight any illness should not depend on demographics — has shaped my entire career since.
Peter inspired me to study the political and financial levers that promoted or obstructed medical progress for the people I grew up with in Oakland, Calif. I wanted to know why so few of them would ever gain access to the latest and greatest care. How do we incentivize scientists to address the questions that matter to patients and make sure that the progress they make reaches the neediest patients?
We talk a lot about access to health care in our country, and rightfully so. But we also need to talk about access to science. The best coverage won’t buy you better health if innovators haven’t worked on an effective treatment for what ails you. Doctors need tools and, without them, they are powerless.
Peter also inspired me to write legislation when I was a health policy aide for Sen. Joe Lieberman directing the National Institutes of Health to provide more research funding for diseases with smaller or poorer patient populations or diseases where the science was too challenging for most to tackle. A version of this bill was enacted into law as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
As many as 30 million Americans live with one of 7,000 rare diseases; only 5% of those diseases have FDA-approved treatments. Having a disease for which there is no cure is about the most tenuous, frightening way you can imagine living. Now, because of Covid-19, everyone in the world understands the fear of contracting a disease for which there’s no cure. It’s a psychological sea change.
Peter, like so many cystic fibrosis patients, eventually needed a lung transplant. But last December, like so many cystic fibrosis patients with late-stage disease, he died. Sebastian, Isabella, and I flew to Ithaca in January for his memorial service. His death, poignant and tragic, crystallized for me how many people die waiting on solutions. And how many lives are touched by their loss.
Three days after we returned to Washington from Peter’s funeral, an email from a headhunter that started like this popped up in my inbox:
“I wanted to connect with you regarding the search we are just launching to recruit Jim Greenwood’s successor as the CEO of BIO. Given the association’s focus on the innovative, patient, and societally oriented work of its members, we’re looking for an energetic and visionary leader with industry experience, an understanding of science or medicine, and the ability to serve as a visible spokesperson and advocate for the important work being done in the biotechnology space.”
I’ve worked as a physician, a molecular immunologist, a science policy advocate, an FDA official, and an executive at a large pharmaceutical company. But I’ve always known deep down that the most effective use of my skills is to be an advocate for science and scientists, writ large. That has always been my passion: getting new medicine and new hope to patients.
So I threw my hat in the ring and this spring received the word that the board of BIO, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, had unanimously voted for me. I accepted: every career experience in my life has prepared me for this moment.
Biotech entrepreneurs and scientists are about to set the world on fire. I couldn’t be prouder for this opportunity to be their champion.
Michelle McMurry-Heath is a physician scientist who led a global regulatory team of 900 people at Johnson & Johnson in the medical device space. Before that she was a senior official in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Regulatory Health, was the top legislative aide for science and health for Sen. Joe Lieberman, and served on President Obama’s science transition team. She became BIO’s third president and CEO on June 1, 2020.