Humans Excel at Finding and Using Patterns

(p. 9) At the end of the 20th century, scholars of human evolution proposed a thrilling idea: Humans were special and distinct from all other animals because of a sudden transformational change that occurred around 35,000 years ago. For millions of years our ancestors had trudged through existence with the same simple tool kit, yet in that special moment, there was a flowering of symbolism, of art, of complicated tool use. This was when the modern human mind was born. You could see its traces in the archaeological record.

. . .

In “The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention,” Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist and the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, contributes a new version of this cognitive revolution. Baron-Cohen argues that humans split off from all other animals to become the “scientific and technological masters of our planet” because we evolved a unique piece of mental equipment that he calls the Systemizing Mechanism. It came into being between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, and it led to the invention of pretty much everything, bows and arrows, pottery, agriculture, science, skateboards and so on.

. . .

Here’s how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a “born pattern seeker,” but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonah’s weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

For the full review, see:

Christine Kenneally. “Systematizers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Dec. 9, 2020, and has the title “Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special?.”)

The book under review is:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Bernie Sanders Is Uncomfortable that Twitter Censored Trump

Do you think there is truth to the critique that liberals have become too censorious and too willing to use their cultural and corporate and political power to censor or suppress ideas and products that offend them?

Look, you have a former president in Trump, who was a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. This is a bad-news guy. But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about that.

Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and an insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t. So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned, and tomorrow, it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.

I don’t like giving that much power to a handful of high-tech people. But the devil is obviously in the details, and it’s something we’re going to have to think long and hard on.

For the whole interview, see:

Klein, Ezra, interviewer. “An Unusually Optimistic Conversation With Bernie Sanders; The Vermont senator discusses the Rescue Act, cancel culture, the filibuster and more.” The Ezra Klein Show, on the New York Times web site. (Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021).

(Note: the first sentence question is by interviewer Ezra Klein. The following answer is by Senator Bernie Sanders.)

WHO Team Unable to Conduct a Thorough and Impartial Study of Wuhan Origin of Covid-19

(p. A1) . . . , as the WHO-led team finalizes its full report on the Wuhan mission, a Wall Street Journal investigation has uncovered fresh details about the team’s formation and constraints that reveal how little power it had to conduct a thorough, impartial examination—and call into question the clarity its findings appeared to provide.

. . .

(p. A10) The WHO asked the U.S. to recommend government experts for the team, but it didn’t contact the three that Washington put forward, according to current and former U.S. officials.

. . .

On Jan. 23, 2020, a WHO emergency committee recommended that a WHO-led group of scientists should “review and support efforts to investigate the animal source of the outbreak.”

. . .

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, discussed the matter with President Xi Jinping in a January 28 meeting. The next month, a WHO-led team, including two U.S. government experts, visited China.

Local officials appeared committed to a search and described work they had under way, according to people on that trip. But no studies emerged over the following weeks.

. . .

The team included leading specialists in animal health, epidemiology and virology, and government experts from Germany, Russia and Japan.

It included one scientist from the U.S.: Peter Daszak, a zoologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit.

Dr. Daszak had experience hunting for the origins of emerging human viruses in animals, including 16 years working with researchers in China. He was on a team that pinpointed bats as the source of the coronavirus behind SARS.

Some U.S. officials and scientists were concerned some of his nonprofit’s work in China posed a conflict of interest. EcoHealth had in past years provided funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as part of a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The WIV is at the center of assertions by the Trump administration that the pandemic virus could have come from a lab, and Dr. Daszak had publicly dismissed the possibility.

In applying for a spot on the team, Dr. Daszak said, he described his expertise and provided a conflict-of-interest statement to the WHO including his work with the WIV.

. . .

On Jan. 28 [2021], a year to the day from the WHO director-general’s meeting with President Xi, they were cleared to begin field visits and face-to-face meetings with Chinese counterparts. For the remainder of the trip, they were restricted mainly to one part of a hotel due to more quarantine rules and forced to eat separately from Chinese counterparts—preventing the kind of informal conversations team members said were often the most fruitful in such efforts. Their contact with anyone outside the team was limited.

It soon became evident to foreign officials and scientists tracking the mission that the team’s itinerary was partly designed to bolster China’s official narrative that the government moved swiftly to control the virus. The team’s first visit was to a hospital where they met a doctor Beijing feted as the first to raise alarms through official channels about an outbreak of unknown pneumonia. The next day, after another hospital visit, the team went to an exhibition commemorating Chinese authorities’ early “decisive victory in the battle” against the virus, paying tribute to President Xi’s leadership.

. . .

Team members said it became clear to them that Chinese authorities would mostly present only their data analysis, not the raw numbers. And they hadn’t completed some short-term tasks the team had hoped for, including detailed studies of blood samples from before December 2019 and compiling a definitive list of animals sold at the Huanan market.

Among the 30 to 60 Chinese participants were nonscientists, including foreign-ministry officials, team members said. China’s team leader has said his team included 17 experts. The Chinese foreign ministry said none of its officials were in the expert group.

A heated exchange during one meeting touched on the pivotal question of how widely the virus spread around Wuhan before the first confirmed case, who Chinese officials say got sick on Dec. 8, 2019.

. . .

After leaving Wuhan, some international team members qualified their verdict on the laboratory. They lacked the authority, expertise or access to conduct a full examination of the WIV or any other research facility, several said publicly or to the Journal.

Several said that they hadn’t been able to see the raw data or original safety, personnel, experiment and animal-breeding logs—which many other scientists say are necessary elements of a full investigation.

“It’s just a great coup by China,” said Daniel Lucey, a clinical professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth who also teaches at Georgetown University.

A thorough investigation of a potential lab leak would require experts with forensic skills similar to those who do weapons or biowarfare inspections, scientists including Dr. Dwyer said.

“We didn’t see the actual data there,” Dr. Dwyer said. “It would be nice to have seen that, particularly around the testing of their staff and so on. But that didn’t come through. They could still provide that.”

For the full story, see:

Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay, and Drew Hinshaw. “WHO’s Hunt for Covid’s Origins Stumbled in China.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 5, 2021): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 17, 2021, and has the title “How the WHO’s Hunt for Covid’s Origins Stumbled in China.” Where there were differences in wording between the online and the print versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Only Very Few of Those Vaccinated Get Covid-19, and When They Do, Symptoms Are Mild or Absent

(p. A8) Nearly 83 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, and it’s unclear just how many of them will have a “breakthrough” infection, though two new reports suggest the number is very small.

One study found that just four out of 8,121 fully vaccinated employees at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas became infected. The other found that only seven out of 14,990 workers at UC San Diego Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles tested positive two or more weeks after receiving a second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Both reports, published on Tuesday [March 23, 2021] in the New England Journal of Medicine, show how well the vaccines work in the real world, and during a period of intense transmission.

. . .

Only some of the virus-positive health workers in the California study showed symptoms, . . ., and they tended to be mild, suggesting that the vaccines were protective. That echoes data from the vaccine trials indicating that breakthrough infections were mild and did not require hospitalizations. Some people had no symptoms at all, and were discovered only through testing in studies or as part of their medical care.

For the full commentary, see:

Denise Grady. “The Vaccinated Can Get Covid, but the Odds are Slim.” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 24, 2021): A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 23, 2021, and has the title “Vaccinated People Can Get Covid, but It’s Most Likely Very Rare.”)

The study discussed above is:

Sacerdote, Bruce, Ranjan Sehgal, and Molly Cook. “Why Is All Covid-19 News Bad News?” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper #28110, Nov. 2020.

The NEJM articles mentioned above are:

Daniel, William, Marc Nivet, John Warner, and Daniel K. Podolsky. “Early Evidence of the Effect of Sars-Cov-2 Vaccine at One Medical Center.” New England Journal of Medicine (March 23, 2021).

Keehner, Jocelyn, Lucy E. Horton, Michael A. Pfeffer, Christopher A. Longhurst, Robert T. Schooley, Judith S. Currier, Shira R. Abeles, and Francesca J. Torriani. “Sars-Cov-2 Infection after Vaccination in Health Care Workers in California.” New England Journal of Medicine (March 23, 2021).

Vaccine Immunity, Plus Natural Immunity from Getting Covid-19, Equals Herd Immunity Soon

The author of the passages I quote below is a surgeon and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and has authored The Price We Pay, which I recently read. It is a disturbing, eye-opening, excellent account of why the costs of drugs are high and rising.

(p. A17) Anthony Fauci has been saying that the country needs to vaccinate 70% to 85% of the population to reach herd immunity from Covid-19. But he inexplicably ignores natural immunity. If you account for previous infections, herd immunity is likely close at hand.

. . .

Dr. Fauci’s vaccination-only path to herd immunity has significantly influenced the national conversation. KNBC-TV in Los Angeles has a county-by-county vaccine tracker showing a bar graph of the percentage of Californians vaccinated, with the zone 70% to 85% labeled “herd immunity.” Currently, it’s at 26%. The false construct does create a greater urgency for everyone to get vaccinated. But it also creates false justification for continued excessive restrictions on freedom. And it raises the possibility that authorities are misallocating the limited vaccine supply by failing to direct it toward people without natural antibodies.

. . .

Some experts claim they don’t talk about natural immunity because we shouldn’t trust it. But a recent Public Health England study found that less than 1% of 6,614 healthcare workers who had Covid-19 developed a reinfection within five months—even though many of them work with Covid patients. Other experts believe natural immunity is powerful. “Natural immunity after Covid-19 infection is likely lifelong, extrapolating from data on other coronaviruses that cause severe illness, SARS and MERS,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease physician and professor at the University of California.

For the full commentary, see:

Marty Makary. “Herd Immunity Is Near, Despite Fauci’s Denial.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 25, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 24, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Makary book praised above is:

Makary, Marty. The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care–and How to Fix It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

U.S. Media Covid-19 Stories More Negative than World Media Stories and than Scientific Journal Stories

(p. A8) Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, noticed something last year about the Covid-19 television coverage that he was watching on CNN and PBS. It almost always seemed negative, regardless of what was he seeing in the data or hearing from scientists he knew.

When Covid cases were rising in the U.S., the news coverage emphasized the increase. When cases were falling, the coverage instead focused on those places where cases were rising. And when vaccine research began showing positive results, the coverage downplayed it, as far as Sacerdote could tell.

But he was not sure whether his perception was correct. To check, he began working with two other researchers, building a database of Covid coverage from every major network, CNN, Fox News, Politico, The New York Times and hundreds of other sources, in the U.S. and overseas. The researchers then analyzed it with a social-science technique that classifies language as positive, neutral or negative.

The results showed that Sacerdote’s instinct had been right — and not just because the pandemic has been mostly a grim story.

The coverage by U.S. publications with a national audience has been much more negative than coverage by any other source that the researchers analyzed, including scientific journals, major international publications and regional U.S. media. “The most well-read U.S. media are outliers in terms of their negativity,” Molly Cook, a co-author of the study, told me.

About 87 percent of Covid coverage in national U.S. media last year was negative. The share was 51 percent in international media, 53 percent in U.S. regional media and 64 percent in scientific journals.

For the full commentary, see:

David Leonhardt. “The Pandemic Is a Grim Story, but is Bad news the Only Kind?” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 24, 2021): A8.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Bad News Bias.”)

The study discussed above is:

Sacerdote, Bruce, Ranjan Sehgal, and Molly Cook. “Why Is All Covid-19 News Bad News?” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper #28110, Nov. 2020.

Distinguished French Scientists Spearhead International Effort to Investigate Possible Wuhan Lab Origin of Covid-19

(p. A8) BEIJING—A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of Covid-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new probe.

The group of two dozen scientists is calling in an open letter on Thursday [March 4,2021] for a new international inquiry. They say the WHO team that last month completed a mission to Wuhan—the Chinese city where the first known cases were found—had insufficient access to adequately investigate possible sources of the new coronavirus, including whether it slipped from a laboratory.

. . .

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Feb. 12 [2021] that the team would release an interim report briefly summarizing the Wuhan mission, possibly the following week, with a full report coming weeks later. But that summary report has yet to be published and the WHO team is now scrapping that plan, said Peter Ben Embarek, the food-safety scientist who led the team.

. . .

According to an advance copy of the open letter, the group of 26 scientists and other experts in areas including virology, zoology and microbiology said that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO team to conduct a full investigation, and that any report was likely to involve political compromises as it had to be approved by the Chinese side.

A credible investigation required, among other things, confidential interviews and fuller access to hospital records of confirmed and potential Chinese coronavirus cases in late 2019, when the outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, said the letter signed by experts from France, the U.S., India, Australia and other countries.

Investigators should also be allowed to view records including maintenance, personnel, animal breeding and experiment logs from all laboratories working with coronaviruses, the letter said.

“We cannot afford an investigation into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible,” the letter said. “Efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.”

The appeal is unlikely to gain traction, as any future probes would require Beijing’s cooperation. Moreover, many leading infectious-disease experts are skeptical that a lab accident could plausibly explain the origins of the pandemic.

Still, it expresses what has become a more widely shared dissatisfaction, voiced by the U.S. and U.K. governments and many scientists world-wide, that China has provided too little information and data to the WHO to guide researchers trying to determine where the virus originated and how it jumped to humans.

. . .

A laboratory accident is “definitely not off the table,” Dr. Ben Embarek told a seminar last week. Dr. Tedros said in February after the team’s trip that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis.”

The signatories of the open letter are mostly members of a broader group, spearheaded by French scientists, who have been sharing research papers and other information on Covid-19 since around December. None are associated with the WHO investigation.

Among the signatories are Etienne Decroly and Bruno Canard, molecular virologists at AFMB Lab, which belongs to Aix-Marseille University and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, France’s state research agency.

Dr. Decroly said he became involved after concluding that on the basis of available data, it was impossible to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 “is the result of a zoonosis from a wild viral strain or an accidental escape of experimental strains.”

The letter was co-organized by Gilles Demaneuf, a French data scientist based in New Zealand, and Jamie Metzl, a U.S.-based senior fellow for the Atlantic Council and adviser to the WHO on human genome editing.

Prominent critics of the laboratory hypothesis have in recent weeks published new research on bat coronaviruses found in Southeast Asia and Japan that they say shows that SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved naturally to infect humans.

Robert Garry, a virologist at the Tulane University School of Medicine who was involved in that research, said he and other colleagues had initially considered the possibility of a leak or accident from a laboratory, but ultimately deemed it “nearly impossible.”

The Biden administration hasn’t publicly repeated its predecessor’s specific assertions regarding Wuhan laboratories.

Signatories of the open letter say they don’t back any one hypothesis but think it is premature to exclude the possibility of a leak or accident at or connected with a research facility such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, which runs high-security laboratories and has conducted extensive research on bat coronaviruses.

WIV scientists deny the virus came from there, saying they neither stored nor worked on SARS-CoV-2 before the pandemic and none of their staff tested positive for the virus.

Signatories said investigators should look at several possible scenarios, including whether a laboratory employee became infected with a naturally evolving virus while sampling bats in the wild, during transport of infected animals, or during disposal of lab waste.

They also said investigators should probe whether SARS-CoV-2 could have stemmed from “gain-of-function” experiments, in which viruses found in the wild are genetically manipulated to see if they can become more infectious or deadly to humans.

For the full story, see:

Betsy McKay, Drew Hinshaw, and Jeremy Page. “WHO Delays Release of Virus Origin Report.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, March 5, 2021): A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 5, 2021, and has the title “WHO Investigators to Scrap Plans for Interim Report on Probe of Covid-19 Origins.” The online edition says that the title in the print edition was “WHO Team Delays Release of Report on Virus’s Origin.” But my copy of the print edition had the title “WHO Delays Release of Virus Origin Report.”
The last 11 paragraphs quoted above appear in the online version, but not the print version, of the article.)

The open letter mentioned above, signed by 26 scientists from Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is:

Butler, Colin D., Bruno Canard, Henri Cap, Y. A. Chan, Jean-Michel Claverie, Fabien Colombo, Virginie Courtier, Francisco A. de Ribera, Etienne Decroly, Rodolphe de Maistre, Gilles Demaneuf, Richard H. Ebright, André Goffinet, François Graner, José Halloy, Milton Leitenberg, Filippa Lentzos, Rosemary McFarlane, Jamie Metzl, Dominique Morello, Nikolai Petrovsky, Steven Quay, Monali C. Rahalkar, Rossana Segreto, Günter Theißen, and Jacques van Helden. “Open Letter: Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of Covid-19.” March 4, 2021.

Raising Minimum Wage to $15 Will Likely Cause 16% Rise in Low-Skilled Job Loss

(p. A15) A recent Congressional Budget Office report estimated that 1.4 million jobs would be lost if a new $15 federal minimum wage is signed into law. Advocates were quick to dismiss the CBO’s conclusion. “It is not a stretch to say that a new consensus has emerged among economists that minimum wage increases have raised wages without substantial job loss,” said Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, which has also circulated a letter signed by economics Nobel laureates and others making the same claim.

. . .

To provide an accurate reading of the research, Peter Shirley and I surveyed the authors of nearly all U.S. studies estimating the effects of minimum wages on employment published in the past 30 years. We asked them to report to us their best estimate of the employment effect, measured as the “elasticity,” or the percent change in employment for each 1% change in the minimum wage. Most authors responded, and in the few cases in which they did not, we pulled this estimate from their study.

The results are stark. Across all studies, 79% report that minimum wages reduced employment. In 46% of studies the negative effect was statistically significant. In contrast, only 21% of studies found small positive effects of minimum wages on employment, and in only a minuscule percentage (4%) was the evidence statistically significant. A simplistic but useful calculation shows that the odds of nearly 80% of studies finding negative employment effects if the true effect is zero is less than one in a million.

Across all the studies, the average employment elasticity is about minus-0.15, which means, for example, that a 10% increase in the minimum wage reduces employment of the low-skilled by 1.5%. Extrapolating this to a $15 minimum wage, this 107% increase in the states where the federal minimum wage of $7.25 now prevails would imply a 16% decline in low-skilled employment (broadly consistent with the recent CBO study). That sounds like a substantial job loss.

For the full commentary, see:

David Neumark. “Raising the Minimum Wage Definitely Costs Jobs.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, March 19, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 18, 2021, and has the title “Raising the Minimum Wage Will Definitely Cost Jobs.”)

Chinese Atlases Are Shrugging

(p. B4) SINGAPORE—Chinese e-commerce company Pinduoduo Inc.’s founder and chairman, Colin Huang, stepped down from the company on Wednesday [March 17, 2021], even as the five-year-old company overtook Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to become the country’s largest e-commerce company by annual active buyers.

Mr. Huang, 41 years old, is resigning as China’s powerful internet sector comes under growing government scrutiny. His resignation follows another departure from a major company in the sector: Financial-tech giant Ant Group Co.’s Chief Executive Simon Hu stepped down earlier this month.

. . .

Beijing in recent months has been moving to rein in China’s powerful internet sector including e-commerce companies. Among the hardest hit has been Alibaba, which is under antitrust probe; its fintech affiliate Ant, whose initial public offering was canceled in November [2020]; and its founder Jack Ma.

This month, Chinese regulators fined Pinduoduo, alongside several other e-commerce companies, alleging anticompetitive practices.

For the full story, see:

Keith Zhai. “Head of China’s Giant E-Commerce Firm Quits.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Mar 18, 2021): B4.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 17, 2021, and has the title “Pinduoduo Founder Colin Huang Steps Down From Company.”)

The fictional version is:

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

Rebates to Formulary Middlemen Are a Growing Part of Drug Costs

(p. B14) To actually sell medication, a drugmaker needs to persuade public and private health plans to place their product on the plan’s formulary, which is a list of drugs the plan is willing to purchase. That means paying middlemen rebates and discounts to choose their drug over any other rival treatments. Failure to secure favorable formulary access could mean low sales even for a highly-effective and safe medication..

. . .

“To secure that formulary position costs us more and more every year,” said Adam Gluck, Sanofi’s head of U.S. corporate affairs, in an interview. The company says that the average list price for its insulin products is up 141% since 2012 but that the net price is down 53% over that same period.

It isn’t just Sanofi facing this dynamic. Merck & Co. said last month that its average U.S. sticker price rose 3.1% in 2020 even as its average net price fell slightly. That is a sea change from recent years: In both 2015 and 2016 Merck’s average list price rose by about 10% while the net price realized by the drug giant rose by 5.5%. Nearly half of Merck’s gross sales went out the door to third parties as discounts last year. A decade ago, that tally was around 27%. Other drugmakers like Bristol-Myers Squibb report similarly high spreads between gross and net sales.

For the full commentary, see:

Charley Grant. “Pharma Giants Are Getting Their Pennies Pinched.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 13, 2021): B14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated March 12, 2021, and has the title “Pharma Giants Get Their Pennies Pinched on Drug Pricing.”)

“It’s Taken Me 27 Years to Become an Overnight Sensation”

(p. B1) The flashiest trend in finance traces back three decades to a pair of old law-school buddies. Now, they are finally cashing in.

Investment banker David Nussbaum and lawyer David Miller —known to each other as “Nuss” and “Miller”—invented the special-purpose acquisition company in 1993 to give private firms another way to access everyday investors.

. . .

“It’s taken me 27 years to become an overnight sensation,” said Mr. Nussbaum, a 66-year-old from Roslyn, N.Y., on Long Island, who co-founded the SPAC-focused investment bank EarlyBirdCapital Inc.

. . .

(p. B5) Many on Wall Street were suspicious of SPACs because their predecessors were called “blind pools” and tied to penny-stock fraud in the 1980s.

. . .

In the early 1990s, the Davids spent over a year working with regulators to install protections for investors and other changes to prevent fraud before completing the first blank-check firm. Among them were the right for a SPAC’s investors to get their money back before a merger with a private company goes through. They also beefed up disclosure requirements ahead of such deals. Those features are now touted by blank-check company bulls.

Still, SPACs struggled to compete with traditional initial public offerings and other methods for raising money until splashy names like sports-betting firm DraftKings Inc. started using them to go public in recent years and more startups began using them to make projections to investors—something that isn’t allowed in a traditional IPO.

“It’s become bigger than anyone expected,” said Mr. Miller, a 66-year-old from Queens, N.Y., who is managing partner at law firm Graubard Miller . . .

. . .

“I am really happy for them,” said Arthur Spector, a venture capitalist who ran the first SPAC Messrs. Nussbaum and Miller worked on in 1993. “They put in a huge amount of work and from some people took a lot of grief.”

. . .

Both men said they now plan to work until it is no longer fun.

For the full story, see:

Amrith Ramkumar. “Pioneers of SPACs Reap The Rewards.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, March 10, 2021): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 9, 2021, and has the title “SPAC Pioneers Reap the Rewards After Waiting Nearly 30 Years.”)