Biotech takes on racial and social equity. Are the efforts sustainable?
ByMarch 23, 2021
Ted Love, CEO, Global Blood Therapeutics
From holding Covid-19 vaccination events in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to building programs that target longstanding inequities, the Bay Area biotech industry is stepping into high-profile social issues like never before.
The initiatives have raised more than $2 million so far, seeding initiatives, putting life science companies’ money where community needs cut across homelessness, health care access and education.
On Thursday, the nonprofit Life Science Cares will partner with the UCSF Benioff Homelessness & Housing Initiative, Glide Memorial Church, the San Francisco Community Health Center and the city’s Department of Public Health to distribute Covid vaccine shots and support packages.
It is the first of weekly vaccination events in the Tenderloin, near the site of the biotech industry’s big J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference each January. But the organization also recently worked with San Mateo County officials and other organizations to set up mobile vaccination sites at farms and in Half Moon Bay, and it is exploring programs in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood and Oakland.
Meanwhile, the California Life Sciences Association and its California Life Sciences Institute last week formally launched a three-year, $1 million-a-year racial and social equity initiative. It is centered on building, hiring and retaining a pipeline of diverse talent and future leaders from communities historically under-represented in biotech, funding a diverse set of innovators and providing access to care.
Both initiatives are in the process of hiring executive directors and other staff. That’s a sign, they say, the programs are not just bandages but long-term treatments for social needs.
The pilot Bay Area Life Science Cares event in the Tenderloin offers a drop in the bucket — hoping to vaccinate 100 people — but it is targeting thousands as the events return each week. Leaders don’t know which vaccine will be available, relying on what’s in supply Thursday.
The involvement of biotech companies helps with funding on the front end, allowing community-based organizations to hire trusted ambassadors to spread word about the vaccination events, said Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the UCSF Benioff.
On the other side, companies can provide licensed personnel who can actually deliver the vaccine jabs.
“Vaccines are an interesting thing in health care — we want to get these out as quickly as we can and we can talk about longevity later,” Kushel said. “There are so many other competing priorities, distrust of health care, that we have to get vaccines to the people where they are.”
There is no shortage of need for the vaccine in the Tenderloin, one of the San Francisco neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic with a homeless or in-transition population of about 8,000 people, said Lynn Seely, the former Myovant Sciences CEO and a Life Science Cares board member.
“We try to make this as easy as possible,” Seely said. “It’s like trying to get people medicine or to participate in clinical trials — you have to be where they are.”
J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. seeded the Bay Area Life Science Cares organization with $1 million during this year’s JPM conference.
The demand for broader social and racial equity also is high, given the high-profile killings last year of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in southeast Georgia, the rise in white nationalist rhetoric and the impact of the Covid pandemic.
More recently, racial hatred emerged as a possible motive in the shooting deaths of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, near Atlanta.
“Clearly, this past year has been a year of reckoning about the pervasive racism and inequalities in our country,” said Ted Love, CEO of South San Francisco sickle cell anemia drug developer Global Blood Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ: GBT) and a board member of Life Science Cares. “Covid brought that out along racial and socioeconomic lines.”
Meanwhile, CLSA President and CEO Mike Guerra, board chair Melinda Richter of Johnson & Johnson Innovation and CLSI President and CEO Lori Lindburg had been talking about what their organizations could do to create a sustainable response to racial and social equity. What they initially came up with was a program with a $300,000 fundraising goal for CLSA member companies.
“That wasn’t bold enough,” Guerra said. “We need a million dollars over three years.”
The money will support a band of programs aimed at increasing awareness of so-called STEM education for under-represented students, particularly people of color; expanding opportunities for biotech entry-level jobs and advancement; funding entrepreneurs and innovations that serve under-represented communities through two QuickFire grant competitions for up to six Black, Hispanic and Native American entrepreneurs; building a pool of up-and-coming women and under-represented people who are ready for company board positions, and; advocating for equitable access to and coverage of care.
Over 50 CLSA members already have donated to the program, Guerra said, and those who can’t give financially are asked to take on interns or offer mentors.
“It’s the reality of what we saw happen last year,” Guerra said.