EASL Gives Wall Street's Privileged Investors Sneaky Preview to Key Hep C Data

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.

EASL's integrity will not be bolstered when analysts and select investors begin madly downloading and discussing new hepatitis C data on Thursday -- taking advantage of the fact that most of the investing public won't have access to the same information.

It's like insider trading -- only perfectly legal, aided and abetted by EASL!

For those investors not fortunate enough to be allowed inside the velvet ropes of EASL's research abstract release party on Thursday, here's a company-by-company summary of the hepatitis C data expected to garner the most attention by Wall Street:

Gilead Sciences:

Data from two separate but similar studies (ELECTRON and QUANTUM), both involving the two-drug combination of GS-7977 plus ribavirin in treatment-naive genotype 1 patients.

Gilead has said results from the QUANTUM study could be announced in a press release early in the second quarter i.e. before the start of the EASL meeting. Investors are sure to scour the EASL web site Thursday for any early patient data that may give a hint about the later '7977 results. Much is riding on the outcomes from these treatment-naive patient studies because '7977's potency was cast in doubt due to poor results in so-called "null responder" patients.

Bristol-Myers Squibb:

Interim results from a phase II study combining Bristol's NS5a inhibitor daclatasavir (BMS-52) with Gilead's GS-7977 in genotypes 1, 2, and 3 is the most highly anticipated data presentation at the EASL meeting this year. The study is important because it will be one of the first glimpses at the Hep C-killing potency of these two classes of direct-acting antivirals combined into a single, all-oral therapy.

If this study is successful, Bristol is expected to swap out GS-7977 for its newly acquired nuke INX-189, gained from the Inhibitex acquisition. Gilead may also capitalize on the study by combining GS-7977 with its own NS5a inhibitor.

Abbott:

Data from a phase II study of its own all-oral Hep C regimen consisting of protease inhibitor ABT-450, a ritonavir booster and the non-nuke polymerase inhibitor ABT-333. The study enrolled treatment naive genotype 1 patients as well as treatment-experienced non-responders.

Merck:

The potential for additional data on its pan-genotypic protease inhibitor MK-5172.

Idenix Pharmaceuticals:

An update on the phase IIb study of nuke IDX-184 plus early data on NS5a inhibitor IDX719.

--Written by Adam Feuerstein in Boston.

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Adam Feuerstein writes regularly for TheStreet. In keeping with company editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Feuerstein appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.