Investment and Disease Prevention

Thoughts on COVID, Influenza, and the Mission of Vivaldi Biosciences Inc.

Among the key tools* for any seasoned investor are:

  • A network of credible scholar relationships
  • An eye on societal ROI

Venture capital plays a key role in cultivating societal return-on-investment and system-level impact by curating big opportunities and supporting innovation. At the existential level, there may be no wiser investment than in innovation to prevent disease.

The pandemic serves as a global and fearsome contemporary wake-up call on disease prevention investment and societal impact: Witness two years of dropping life expectancy in the US. Back in 2014 — early days in conceiving Health2047 — American Medical Association CEO Jim Madara, MD, said, “Prevention can make an even greater impact than diagnosis and treatment of disease.” He was not wrong.

The creation of Vivaldi Biosciences Inc. was rooted in similar insight. In 2005, as a VC discussing new company formation, I met with Elliott Kieff, MD, PhD. I put this question to him: “If you only had one chip to play in medical innovation investment and scale of human impact, where would you place your bet?”

Elliott — a virologist and immunologist, member of numerous National Academies, and Chief of Infectious Disease at Harvard/Brigham/Channing Lab, had a ready answer: an improved universal flu vaccine. Echoing in the background was the grim history of the 1918 Flu epidemic. I agreed.

Elliott recruited U.S.-based Peter Palese, PhD and Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, PhD — leading reverse genetics inventors and Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV) scientists. We formed and venture funded Vivaldi Biosciences, a biotechnology company devoted to advancing pandemic preparedness using designer genetic flu vaccine technologies and commercializing them for scale and impact. Its scientific founders— subsequently joined by Vienna-based Thomas Muster, PhD—have tenaciously pursued their influenza vaccine improvement premise in both the US and Europe for more than three decades.

Fast forward to the waning days of 2019 and the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. For global civilization, COVID represents the modern era’s nearest-scale disaster to the 1918 flu epidemic.

To quote Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group Director Greg Poland, MD on the progression of the prolonged pandemic:

“There was not one virologist I know of, including myself, not one of us thought we would see anything other than Delta subvariants. Instead, out of nowhere came Omicron. None of us expected that. And now what Omicron is demonstrating is something I have never really seen in my career before called convergent evolution, which means that what we’re seeing is a swarm of Omicron subvariants battling one another for dominance.”

In the fight against COVID, breakthrough mRNA vaccine development, and technology even newer than Palese’s reverse genetics, became a foundational pillar in immediate response to initiate recovery from the pandemic. But the full toll has not yet been tallied and future threats loom large. Disease prevention innovation remains essential at societal scale.

Elliott was right in calling out the imminent risk of future pandemic. Between 2006 and 2020, close calls with influenza, two previous SARS outbreaks, and Ebola rapidly emerged and burned out. Global influenza surveillance and annual vaccine adaptation for drift-and-shift mutation strains were in place. But the global community was still left scrambling to react to the sudden emergence of COVID-19 and its unprecedented evolution of highly transmissible and lethal strains.

We have been harshly reminded that we must continue to prepare on many levels and across many disciplines. Among the addressable issues:

  • Support of governmental funding priority for fundamental scientific research, with advocacy and focus in the vein of Research!America
  • Insufficient attention on vulnerable and aging populations
  • Barriers to and gaps in universal healthcare access in all nations
  • Global air travel networks and instantaneous outbreak spread
  • Consistently parsimonious public health spending
  • Gaps in WHO disease surveillance and epidemiology
  • Incomplete understanding of zoonotic disease emergence and cross-species transmission
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Insufficient vaccine preparedness, distribution, cold-chain logistics, and public acceptance
  • The need for more vibrant research-based pharmaceutical innovation and industry
  • Enormous burdens placed on our physician workforce, a global treasure

Mother Nature has put us on notice again. We’ve had our wake up call. Vivaldi Biosciences has not lost sight of future influenza pandemic risk, with every bit of the morbidity and mortality hallmarks of COVID. It continues its quest for improved universal influenza vaccine. Investing in preparation and prevention is never the wrong bet.

*My toolkit includes experience as: a Massachusetts General Hospital and Mort Schwartz/Bob Moellering-trained ID clinical specialist at the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis; a University of Chicago and Elliott Kieff-trained virologist and human herpesvirus scholar; a JHBSPH Health Advisory Board (HAB) member for 18 years through the tenure of three deans focused on the practice of public health; a Max Essex associate on the HSPH International Council and HIV/AIDS Institute/Initiative, chiefly in Botswana; a member of the University of Chicago Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Medicine Visiting Committee (former chair) for 30 years; a member of the AMA’s Health2047 Inc. and Health2047 Capital Partners ecosystem since 2014, supporting Jim Madara, MD; a serial biotech and healthcare entrepreneur and operator in the VC ecosystem for 30 years; and a 25-year collaboration with Larry Cohen, PhD, CEO Health2047, and Bill Wick, MBA, CEO Vivaldi.