DURHAM — In the frantic days leading up to Tuesdays decision by Triangle drugmaker Chimerix to provide an experimental drug to a seriously ill 7-year-old, company CEO Kenneth Moch was receiving death threats and had to be placed under armed escort.
The small drug companys office was put on lockdown this week as employees feared for their safety, a police sentry stationed at the buildings vestibule and another guarding the third-floor entrance to Chimerixs headquarters in Durham.
Speaking in his executive office on Wednesday, Moch said he wouldnt validate the strategy behind the threats by divulging details. But he noted that he and his 54-employee company experienced the dark side of the social media phenomenon.
Chimerix had been resisting relentless pressure to provide its potent antiviral drug to Josh Hardy, the Virginia first-grader who received a bone marrow transplant and is now fighting off the potentially lethal adenovirus.
This reached a public social media crescendo, Moch said. Im concerned by the actions of those who really need to look into their own hearts and souls.
Moch had plenty to celebrate Wednesday as his company was transformed overnight from a heartless corporate villian to a caring organization. The widespread media exposure of Chimerix and its experimental drug pushed the companys stock up 31 percent this week, with four times as many shares trading hands Wednesday than on a typical day.
I think it really helped his company, said Todd Hardy, Joshs father.
The controversy had the beneficial side effect of introducing Chimerix to a broader audience and encouraged the public to buy the companys stock, said analyst Katherine Xu of William Blair & Co.
Joshs struggle for survival was tracked by Fox News, CNN and a host of other media outlets, as family members urged elected officials and the public to enlist in Joshs Army to pressure Chimerix to let the ailing child try the drug, which is designed to stop five families of DNA viruses.
Josh, semi-conscious and experiencing kidney failure, has been hospitalized since late last year and is struggling, Hardy said. Theres been a week at a time that we havent been able to talk to him, he said.
Hardy spoke with Moch on Sunday, when Moch said the company refused to release the medication, and again on Tuesday, when the CEO called with the news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would let Josh use the antiviral as part of a drug study involving 20 people.
Armed escort a precaution
Hardy said Moch assured him that the family is not to blame for the death threats but marveled at the power of social media as a change agent and also for its ability to attract fringe groups that lurk online.
Moch said he never feared for his own safety, but the armed escort was taken as a precaution. Frankly, they hid them from me so that I would not be concerned, he said of the threats.
Chimerix has no products on the market and became publicly traded only 11 months ago, focusing solely on developing the antiviral, brincidofovir. The drug is not expected to receive regulatory approval for public use for 2 1/2 years, and its benefits remain unproved.
But its promise has won the confidence of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, which is financing the development of the drug as a weapon against bioterrorism.
Joshs first dose of brincidofovir was administered Wednesday. The drug is designed to wipe out viruses without toxic side effects.
Chimerix had refused the familys pleas because it would have been unethical to release an unapproved medication selectively. To get the drug to Josh, the company had to devise a program in which the treatment was available to other needy patients, Moch said.
Brincidofovir was designed to prevent infection, not to treat it, and Joshs prospects for recovery remain unclear. A test on 48 infected patients last year was not statistically meaningful, and the company planned to continue testing the medication.
Moch emphasized Wednesday that Chimerex had been in talks with federal regulators for six months to come up with a drug trial to test brincidofovirs effectiveness on treating adenovirus, which causes organ failure in patients with compromised immune systems.
The decision to offer the drug to Josh as part of a small trial merely compressed the outcome into a week, he said.
It wasnt just about Josh, Moch said. It was about many Joshes.