Update: After this column was published, EASL announced a delay in the release of research abstracts for the International Liver Congress to Tues. March 27.
BARCELONA (TheStreet) -- Investing in hepatitis C drug stocks is a suckers bet this week because the European Association for the Study of the Liver, better known as EASL, has rigged the game so that Wall Street's privileged investors get a sneak peek at new clinical data ahead of an important and closely followed conference next month.
EASL's International Liver Congress, taking place April 18-22 in Barcelona, is the must-follow medical meeting of the spring. Gilead Sciences (GILD), Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), Abbott (ABT), Idenix Pharmaceuticals (IDIX), Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX) and Merck (MRK) are among the companies rolling out new clinical data on experimental hepatitis C therapies.
But if you want an advance look at potentially market-moving hepatitis C drug data, you'll have to be an EASL member or a registered attendee of the EASL meeting -- a group which includes hedge fund and mutual fund portfolio managers and sell-side analysts, all of whom can pay for early access.EASL plans to selectively distribute hepatitis C drug research abstracts to these folks on Thursday. The same documents will not be made available to the public. That means a select group of investors will have access to potentially stock-moving clinical data while a majority of investors will be kept in the dark. Journalists registered to cover the EASL meeting will also be granted early access to hepatitis C research abstracts but they are barred by EASL's restrictive embargo rules from writing about any new data until the start of the April meeting. EASL's abstract distribution policy is misguided, unfair and quite frankly unworkable. Smarter medical and scientific groups like the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) realized years ago that trying to compartmentalize research abstracts was futile. Information cannot be selectivity disclosed and expected not to leak, especially information that will weigh on the market valuations of biotech and drug firms involved in new hepatitis C drug research. That's why most medical and scientific groups made research abstracts freely available to everyone in advance of major conferences. Jacqui Sisto, an EASL spokesperson, explained via email that selective disclosure of research abstracts "ensures the integrity of the International Liver Congress." Really? EASL appears to be corrupting its most important meeting, not making it more honest.
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