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Coronavirus Drug Development Efforts Pick Up Amid Sell-Off

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The drug/biotech sector broadly fell on Thursday due to a major market sell-off on rising concerns about the economic impact of the fast spreading coronavirus. The NYSE ARCA Pharmaceutical Index declined 7.14% on Thursday. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, a pandemic on Mar 11.

Nonetheless, drug/biotech companies’ efforts to make new antibodies, drugs, and vaccines to prevent and treat COVID-19 are in full swing.

Here are some updates from Thursday.

  • Lilly (LLY - Free Report) announced a collaboration deal with private biotech, AbCellera to co-develop antibody therapies to treat and prevent COVID-19. To develop these therapies, the companies will select from more than 500 unique antibodies identified by AbCellera and isolated from the blood sample of a U.S. COVID-19 patient who recovered from the disease. The companies will equally share initial development costs for the antibody products after which Lilly will take care of further development, manufacturing and distribution.
  • Roche (RHHBY - Free Report) announced that the FDA has granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to its cobas SARS-CoV-2 test to detect virus that causes COVID-19. The test, which has not yet been approved by the FDA, can be performed on Roche’s cobas 6800/8800 systems. The test is available in markets that accept the CE mark and in areas where the SARS-CoV-2 virus is confirmed to be present. Several other biotech/drug companies are working on making treatments/vaccines to treat COVID-19.
  • Vir Biotechnology (VIR - Free Report) signed a letter of intent with biotech giant, Biogen (BIIB - Free Report) for clinical manufacturing of human monoclonal antibodies that can bind SARS-CoV-2 virus and potentially treat COVID-19. Vir Biotechnology has identified several antibodies isolated from patients who survived SARS, another coronavirus that emerged in 2002. Biogen will conduct clinical manufacturing activities in order to advance the development of Vir’s antibodies. Vir Biotechnology’s stock was up 11.3% on Thursday in response to the news. On Wednesday, Vir Biotechnology had announced a joint research project with National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center to identify combinations of antibodies against coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, SARS and MERS. Earlier this month, Vir Biotechnology announced a collaboration with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals to develop RNAi therapeutics targeting SARS-CoV-2.
  • Inovio Pharmaceuticals received a new $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate testing and scale up of its proprietary smart delivery device for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, INO-4800. Inovio already has a funding of $9 million from Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (“CEPI”), a public-private nonprofit organization to develop INO-4800, which is in pre-clinical studies. Inovio expects INO-4800 to enter phase I testing in April. Inovio claims the smart delivery device can support large scale manufacturing of INO-4800 doses by the end of 2020. Shares of Inovio were up 13.5% on Thursday.
  •  Mallinckrodt (MNK - Free Report) announced that it has engaged with the FDA, NIH and BARDA to evaluate the potential role of inhaled nitric oxide as a supportive measure for treating patients infected with coronavirus and having associated pulmonary complications.



The drug biotech industry is working fast to bring some treatment for the disease to market. Gilead’s (GILD - Free Report) investigational antiviral candidate, remdesivir, is being evaluated in phase III studies to treat COVID-19. Regeneron signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for manufacturing antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2. 

Several big drugmakers like J&J, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have expressed interest in developing a vaccine for COVID-19.

CEPI has provided funding of around $24 million to biotechs like Moderna, Novavax CureVac and Inovio to have potential vaccine candidates in early-stage clinical studies within a few months.

Smaller biotechs like Vaxart, Kamada, Inovio and Novavax are making an effort to leverage their existing technology/platform to identify antibodies/targets that can be developed into potential vaccines or treatments for COVID-19.

Last week, President Donald Trump asked pharmaceutical companies working on making vaccines or treatments for coronavirus to accelerate their development. Though a treatment, most probably remdesivir, could be available in 4-5 months, a vaccine is not expected to be available before 12-18 months.

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