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One day last week, my wife called me and she was aghast regarding the story of Josh Hardy, a seven-year-old cancer survivor from Virginia who is suffering from a severe infection due to his weakened immune system. There’s a drug in development that can treat Hardy’s critical and potentially fatal condition, but the pharmaceutical company was refusing to give the medicine to the kid. 

Brincidofovir, an experimental drug from a company called Chimerix, has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.  However, under a policy known as “compassionate use,” the FDA can approve the use of experimental drugs in situations like the one facing Hardy.  Chimerix said no.

The company could have quietly been the hero, but Chimerix chose to, rather vocally, turn down Hardy’s request for compassionate use.

His parents then began a social media campaign which quickly went viral – which explains why my wife was spitting mad at Chimerix’s CEO.  This is just one reason not to get between Moms and their kid’s medicine.

Ever playing the devil’s advocate, I reviewed the stories online while Mrs. David attacked corporate greed.  The company made some interesting arguments.  First, the treatment is expensive and someone would have to pay for it.  Second, Chimerix, though publicly traded, is not yet profitable and it has been working on getting this product to market for years.  Figuring out how to treat Hardy, the company argued, would slow down its ability to treat others.  This “needs of the many vs. needs of the few” argument, though Star Trek-esque, was actually compelling to me as a business person.

Many national media outlets weighed-in and Chimerix and its CEO Kenneth Moch were getting crucified.  Moch was firmly on the record, telling CNN he wouldn’t back down from his decision to not to give Hardy the drug.

Moch explained to media outlets that other children had applied for compassionate use exemptions to take the experimental drug, but the company was initially worried about how it could ethically say yes to Hardy and no to others.  Moch had said that prescribing the drug outside of its safety and efficacy trials could derail the drug approval process.  The company has been working on it for 14 years.

Eventually, Chimerix relented and announced that it had worked out a way to start a new FDA-sponsored trial that would include Hardy – the boy would get the drug.  There was much rejoicing.

But is this just another case of public pressure influencing a company’s behavior?  Is this another Change.org success story?  I’m not so sure.

The typical PR guy advice in such situations is that companies need to monitor social media mentions and look for ways to put out the fire of a public relations crisis like this one quickly.  When USA Today is calling your company dispassionate, you ought to look closely at your behavior for fear of public backlash.

And is your CEO crazy to be out-front on this situation and publicly deny a dying boy a chance to live?  Or crazy like a fox?

Sometimes the theory of any PR is good PR makes sense.  And in this case, negative PR is actually great PR.  Here’s why:

  1. Few outside of the biomedical community had heard of Chimerix or its drug.  By turning down Hardy, the company made national news – driving attention to the company and its offerings.  It’s cold-blooded, but so is business.
  2. The FDA was in the cross hairs too and Chimerix appeared to have used this to its advantage.  Although it took a few body blows in the beginning, the company worked out a solution which worked for the drug maker and the FDA.
  3. While lambasting Chimerex, the media was treating its product, the “officially unproven” Brincidofovir, like a miracle cure.  Most companies will be OK with an image hit if its product gets the halo treatment as a counter balance.

In the end, there were many winners.  Hardy got his meds and is reported to be improving.  Chimerix was lauded as a belated hero by Hardy’s parents.  And the company’s stock price, which was trading at around $19 before the controversy began, closed north of $26 yesterday.

While I can’t argue for corporate dispassion on a regular basis, sometimes taking a PR hit can yield positive business results.  Whether Chimerix did this on purpose is open for debate, but it’s tough to argue with the results.


Author: John P. David


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