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Can investing in infectious disease pay off? Vir Biotechnology’s tightrope walk shows it’s a struggle

Nearly a decade ago, venture capitalist Bob Nelsen called industry veteran Vicki Sato to pitch her on launching a large company dedicated to tackling the world’s worst pathogens. “This is a crazy idea,” Sato said.

Nelsen, managing director of ARCH Venture Partners, had made a name and fortune off crazy ideas, but generally it was the science that sounded crazy: engineering cells to cure cancer, finding drugs to slow aging. This new idea was financially crazy. For years, biotech companies had been pulling out of infectious disease. 


Sato, by then retired, had watched them retreat. Cerebral and uncompromising, she loved infectious disease, both the impact and the us-versus-them clarity of chasing a pathogen foe. She had worked on HIV and hepatitis C drugs at Biogen and Vertex, storied companies that ultimately moved on to cancer, neurology, rare disease, and autoimmunity.

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