A top biotech venture capitalist saw the pandemic coming. He shared his prediction for how the coronavirus will shape 2021.

  • Biotech venture capitalist Robert Nelsen expects the US to feel more normal in 2021, as vaccines and drugs help fight COVID-19. 
  • Nelsen, the cofounder of ARCH Venture Partners, presciently predicted the severity of the outbreak in the early months of 2020.
  • That included buying into a stock volatility index in late-January, warning of overrun US hospitals when the US had just a handful of confirmed cases in early February, and stockpiling food, toilet paper, and Grey Goose on February 25.
  • Business Insider asked him for his thoughts on the year to come. 
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One of the top venture capitalists in biotech who foresaw the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020 shared his predictions with Business Insider on how the pandemic will play out in 2021. 

Robert Nelsen, a cofounder and managing partner at ARCH Venture Partners, predicted the new year will bring a clearer divide between people with and without antibodies to the new virus.

"What you're going to get is a bifurcated world, where some places there will be herd immunity, and some places there won't," Nelsen told Business Insider. "You'll have these regional epidemics, but there won't be a pandemic."

With vaccines and drugs ramping up in availability, Nelsen predicted the death rate will start to fall markedly in January and February. He expects normal activities like travel, bars, concerts to start to come back in the spring, with varying controls put on by different states. 

"2021 is going to feel like we're pulling out of it, but we're not going to be all the way out," added Nelsen, who has helped launch more than 100 biotechs since cofounding ARCH in the 1980s.

Read more: 29 top VCs share their best 2021 healthcare predictions, from a surge in startups addressing where medicine falls short to a big year for digital health IPOs

Nelsen's fears about COVID-19 in early 2020 were ahead of most 

Nelsen isn't a virologist or a scientist, but has earned a reputation for placing bold bets on the future as a venture capitalist. He joined ARCH in 1986, when it was a tiny venture firm being spun out of the University of Chicago. Nelsen majored in biology and economics before getting his MBA in 1987 at the University of Chicago. 

His first investment in biotech was Aviron in 1992, a company that helped bring a nasal vaccine spray for influenza to market, Forbes reported.

Some of his investments have blossomed into industry leaders, like Illumina and Alnylam. Others like Juno Therapeutics and Array BioPharma have been acquired in multibillion-dollar buyouts by pharmaceutical giants. And some have floundered, such as Sienna Biopharmaceuticals declaring bankruptcy last year or Unity Biotechnology's anti-aging business finding little success since a flashy 2018 IPO, with the stock down by two-thirds since then. 

Nelsen has been interested in viruses beyond Aviron's work. He helped launch Vir Biotechnology in 2016 to fight infectious diseases. That San Francisco biotech is developing an antibody drug against COVID-19 that could be ready for use in early 2021.

And Nelsen was strikingly right in early 2020 on his viral fears and predictions. In the early weeks, he sent out a torrent of tweets as the virus was ravaging China and starting to spread in Europe.

Nelsen's first COVID-19 tweet came well before the disease had a name. Linking to a story about China confirming human-to-human transmission of this unnamed virus, Nelsen commented on January 20: "Very scary."

A few minutes later, he added a clarification: "Actually very very scary."

His late-January tweets gained little attention, despite having more than 15,000 followers, each gaining only a handful of retweets, likes, and replies.

His first coronavirus warning to gain traction was a rough projection, shared anonymously with him, that the virus could infect 15% to 20% of the world with sustained transmission.

That January 31 tweet was amplified by former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

 

By late February, Nelsen went to Costco, buying a generator, 30 rolls of toilet paper, bottled water, Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and half a dozen large bottles of Grey Goose. He recommended others to follow suit now if they didn't have a couple months of food.

Reports of lines outside grocery stores and runs on toilet paper started a couple weeks later.

 

For most Americans, the seriousness of the pandemic shifted on March 11.

That night, a quick succession of events showed the impact of the virus. Tom Hanks announced he was infected, the NBA abruptly suspended its season, and President Donald Trump gave a rare Oval Office address to announce a European travel ban.

For Nelsen, this fallout seemed inevitable, two months in the making. However, his thought the next day was one most people could relate to: "Need a seriously large drink." 

For 2021, Nelsen sees progress coming early in a year of transition

So how does Nelsen think the next year will play out with the pandemic?

The death rate should come down "markedly" in January and February, Nelsen said, because of vaccines and treatments. The rollout of vaccines is already underway, with the US expecting to have given a first dose to nearly 20 million Americans by year's end. 

But Nelsen also expects the number of people that will ultimately be vaccinated will be lower than anticipated. Treatment options could help fill that gap, like the one Vir Biotechnology — a company Nelsen cofounded— is developing, he said. Vir first announced its research work on January 22.

By the spring, the pandemic will "feel like it's becoming over," he said. Activities like traveling, going to a bar or a concert, will start to come back in a more controlled fashion in certain states, while more fully in other states, he predicted.

"More regular behaviors will begin to resume, but because of the low uptake rates it will be kind of a bifurcated world," Nelsen said. "Those who have antibodies and those that don't."

The summer will feel like we're in a pretty decent place, and, while there will be a resurgence in the fall, Nelsen predicted it'll likely be small due to decent vaccination rates.

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