Dispensed: Layoffs at Clover Health, a troubling marijuana-linked syndrome, and what's ahead for the exploding gene therapy field

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider


Welcome to the last March edition of Dispensed.We’ve got our fingers crossed that April brings some more sunshine and warmer weather.

It’s been a busy day of news already, with Lyft finally starting trading, while those in favour of the Bristol-Myers Squibb-Celgene deal are breathing a sigh of relief.

I wanted to give you a rundown of the news that kept the far-flung BI healthcare team busy this week.

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To start, Emma Court went to an event at the New York City Bar last week where Merck CEO Ken Frazier gave a wide-ranging speech. Here are some of the highlights.

Vivek Garipalli (1)Courtesy Clover HealthClover Health CEO Vivek Garipalli

It was a big week for the health insurance industry.

Emma’s been up in Boston this week at a gene therapy conference. While there, she heard from top executives at three companies in the space to get a sense of the challenges facing the new area of medicine.

Billions of dollars are pouring into gene-therapy startups. Top execs at 3 companies described the biggest challenge the new field faces.

  • New drug companies are flooding into the promising field of gene therapy because of its tremendous potential to treat disease at its genetic root cause.
  • But the field has also long been plagued by issues of patient safety, something that top biotech executives said continues to be a problem.
  • The executives, from Spark Therapeutics, AveXis, and Bluebird Bio, spoke at the Gene Therapy for Rare Disorders conference in Boston on Wednesday about how their companies had navigated this challenge.

Emma also heard from the FDA’s top official overseeing gene therapy. He gave advice for the hundreds of companies exploring using the treatments as a way to treat diseases at a genetic level.

Rich Feloni on the Strategy team here at BI had a conversation with former Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini. One part that caught my eye was a comment Bertolini made about where the healthcare industry is heading, and Amazon’s decision to acquire PillPack.

The former CEO of Aetna reveals why he thinks Amazon’s $US750 million PillPack deal isn’t really about pills

  • The healthcare industry is going through dramatic changes.
  • From mega-mergers between pharmacies and insurers, to big tech getting increasingly interested in healthcare through Amazon’s acquisition of online pharmacy PillPack, the industry is vying to figure out how to do healthcare cheaper and better.
  • Former Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini explains what he thinks the Amazon-PillPack deal is really about.
  • “Amazon bought PillPack, but it wasn’t about the pills,” Bertolini said in an interview.
Man smoking marijuana weed cannabisMario De Fina / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Erin Brodwin reported on some troubling news about ER visits associated with marijuana use and a mysterious syndrome that seems to be linked with using the drug.

A mysterious syndrome that makes marijuana users violently ill is starting to worry doctors

  • A new study documented a sharp rise in emergency-room visits linked with marijuana following legalization in Colorado.
  • One of the key drivers of the ER visits was a mysterious syndrome characterised by severe nausea and repeated vomiting.
  • Little is known about the condition, called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS.
  • The only known way to cure CHS is to stop using marijuana. Researchers still aren’t sure what causes it.

Erin also had the scoop on cigarette-maker Reynolds’ latest product aiming to compete with the likes of Juul and others for smokeless nicotine fixes.

Tobacco giant Reynolds just rolled out berry and cream nicotine lozenges as it faces new pressure from Juul for smokeless products

  • On Wednesday, tobacco giant Reynolds rolled out nicotine lozenges called Revel.
  • Sold in four flavours, the lozenges are the first new product the company has launched on a wide commercial scale since the Vusee-cigarette in 2013.
  • Revel lozenges are meant to adapt to smokers’ evolving preferences for consuming nicotine, Reynolds’ vice president of consumer marketing told Business Insider.
  • The lozenges do not contain tobacco or tar. Still, Reynolds is not advertising them as a healthier alternative to smoking or as a way to quit.

Stay tuned next week for more health insurance news. April should be a fun month, with the upcoming pharmacy benefit manager hearing in Washington as Congress looks to get to the bottom of rising drug prices in the US, and the Bristol-Myers Squibb shareholder vote on April 12.

Until then, feel free to reach out with tips, reactions to the Centene-WellCare merger, and your best red-eye recovery tips to me at [email protected] or the whole healthcare team at [email protected]

– Lydia

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