Few people have done better in the recent stock boom than biotech investors. Biotech was the best-performing market sector last year, and in the past two years its stocks rose a hundred and twenty per cent. But suddenly, in late March, the stocks tanked, some falling more than twenty per cent in a few weeks. The selloff can be explained to some extent as a market correction and part of a wider flight from risk. But the real story concerns a revolutionary new hepatitis-C drug developed by the biotech giant Gilead.
Hepatitis C affects 3.2 million Americans; untreated, it leads to scarring of the liver and to liver cancer. Until now, the best treatments cured only about half of patients and often had debilitating side effects. But in December the F.D.A. approved the first in a new wave of hep-C drugs, Gilead’s Sovaldi. This is huge news—not just in medicine but on Wall Street. Vamil Divan, a drug-industry analyst at Credit Suisse, told me, “Sovaldi and the other new hep-C drugs are great drugs for a tough disease.” Sovaldi can cure ninety per cent of patients in three to six months, with only minor side effects. There’s just one catch: a single dose of the drug costs a thousand dollars, which means that a full, twelve-week course of treatment comes to more than eighty grand.