WASHINGTON — An upbeat news release about the performance in clinical trials of a new drug called Tysabri made it sound like a breakthrough for people coping with multiple sclerosis.
"Tysabri, with its significant effect on slowing the progression of disability, offers new hope for patients with MS," the release quoted Dr. Burt Adelman, a Biogen Idec executive vice president, as declaring.
That was on Feb. 17. The next day, Biogen notified the Food and Drug Administration that a patient in the clinical trials had fallen sick. Biogen shareholders didn't learn this news until 10 days later, when Biogen and its marketing partner, Ireland's Elan Corp., announced that the sick patient had died and Tysabri had been pulled from the market.
Within hours, Biogen shares had plunged 43%. Lawyers launched a flurry of class-action lawsuits. The Securities and Exchange Commission started to ask questions. Biogen had joined a growing group of companies mired in controversy over what management revealed to the public -- and when.
SEC enforcers often think of it as the "reasonable investor" test. "Would a reasonable investor think this is important, knowing what they know already?" said Elizabeth P. Gray, a former assistant director of the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement division.
The test may be tricky. "Science by its nature is complex and uncertain," said Gray, a lawyer with Foley & Lardner who is also part owner of a Maryland company that develops schizophrenia drugs. "It's not always obvious for companies to know precisely what should be disclosed."
Answering the question, however, is increasingly important. In addition to Biogen, Chiron Corp. and Merck & Co. have both suffered stock plunges, class-action lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny in the wake of revelations about their drugs.
"Negative news by a company, particularly on the heels of upbeat statements by company representatives, will require a lot of explaining" in today's climate, said Jacob S. Frenkel, a former SEC enforcement attorney now with Shulman Rogers. "The idea that a corporate executive did not know will meet great skepticism."
Biogen spokeswoman Amy Brockelman maintained that the company acted promptly to inform the public and intended to fight the shareholder suits. Senior management didn't know about the health questions until one day after the Feb. 17 news release and immediately informed the FDA, she said.
At that point, the company needed to evaluate the new information and work with its partner Elan and the FDA before alerting shareholders, she said.
"We acted very swiftly and deliberately to ensure patient safety," Brockelman said. "That's actually a very rapid response."
Biogen shares rose 76 cents Tuesday to $38.35 on Nasdaq. The stock traded at $67.25 on Feb. 25.
Those who enforce disclosure laws focus on the matter of whether an event is "material" -- a concept that may be hard to nail down but is of paramount importance to regulators.
"The threshold is: Would the information change the decision of a reasonable investor to buy or sell the stock?" said Laura A. Berezin, an attorney with Cooley Godward in Palo Alto. "Companies spend a lot of time thinking about that."
She added: "There's just no question that the requirements for disclosure have gotten more sophisticated and more demanding -- not just from the SEC but from the investor community."
Public demands that companies scale back secrecy have escalated since recent corporate scandals, and the SEC has supported more meaningful disclosure for public companies. Yet the pressures may raise particular issues in biotechnology because of the importance of test results and the profound effect that new products may have on the bottom line.
Still, if a company trumpets even modest, initial news, it may establish a public expectation that it will disclose all sorts of developments, good and bad, in the future.
Said Gray: "You don't want to walk down a road where you only disclose what's positive. You don't want to be out there promising the moon."
The matter of timing -- what did executives know and when did they know it? -- has played a big role in recent cases.
On Oct. 5, when British regulators temporarily shuttered the Liverpool vaccine factory owned by Chiron, slashing the U.S. flu vaccine supply for the current season, shares of the Emeryville, Calif.-based company plunged more than 16%.
Yet just a week earlier, Howard Pien, chief executive of Chiron, testified before Congress that the company expected to supply vaccine for the current season.
A class-action lawsuit by aggrieved investors soon alleged that the Liverpool plant's history of regulatory problems should have signaled to executives that a serious disruption remained possible. A New York grand jury began looking into the situation. In February, meanwhile, the SEC started a formal investigation.