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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. 

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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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