An­a­lysts as­sess fall­out af­ter As­traZeneca halts PhI­II Covid-19 vac­cine dos­ing to probe a pos­si­ble se­ri­ous ad­verse event

In­ves­ti­ga­tors at As­traZeneca have or­dered a halt to dos­ing their close­ly-watched Covid-19 vac­cine in or­der to probe a po­ten­tial­ly se­vere ad­verse event — re­port­ed­ly in­volv­ing in­flam­ma­tion of the spinal cord — suf­fered by one of the tri­al par­tic­i­pants.

In a state­ment out Tues­day evening, a spokesman for the phar­ma gi­ant told End­points News that the study had been put on hold to in­ves­ti­gate an ill­ness. Lat­er Tues­day, they sent a re­vised state­ment, which not­ed that the halt is vol­un­tary, not or­dered by reg­u­la­tors. It reads:

As part of the on­go­ing ran­domised, con­trolled glob­al tri­als of the Ox­ford coro­n­avirus vac­cine, our stan­dard re­view process was trig­gered and we vol­un­tar­i­ly paused vac­ci­na­tion to al­low re­view of safe­ty da­ta by an in­de­pen­dent com­mit­tee. This is a rou­tine ac­tion which has to hap­pen when­ev­er there is a po­ten­tial­ly un­ex­plained ill­ness in one of the tri­als, while it is in­ves­ti­gat­ed, en­sur­ing we main­tain the in­tegri­ty of the tri­als. In large tri­als ill­ness­es will hap­pen by chance but must be in­de­pen­dent­ly re­viewed to check this care­ful­ly. We are work­ing to ex­pe­dite the re­view of the sin­gle event to min­imise any po­ten­tial im­pact on the tri­al time­line. We are com­mit­ted to the safe­ty of our par­tic­i­pants and the high­est stan­dards of con­duct in our tri­als.

The spokesman did not say what ill­ness was in­volved, but the New York Times re­port­ed that the halt was trig­gered by a case in the UK of trans­verse myelitis, an in­flam­ma­tion of the spinal cord that can in­ter­rupt mes­sages that spinal cord nerves trans­mit. Ac­cord­ing to Johns Hop­kins, “it is char­ac­ter­ized by symp­toms and signs of neu­ro­log­ic dys­func­tion in mo­tor and sen­so­ry tracts on both sides of the spinal cord.”

The con­di­tion can be trig­gered by a va­ri­ety of things, in­clud­ing vac­ci­na­tions.

As­traZeneca’s shares slid 6% af­ter the bell on Tues­day, a sharp drop for a Big Phar­ma of that size. Shares of Mod­er­na and BioN­Tech, the two mR­NA lead­ers in Phase III, each jumped 5%.

This is the first such pause in the fren­zied race to get a Covid-19 vac­cine to the goal line. And the in­ter­rup­tion on a Covid-19 leader like this trig­gered head­lines world­wide. As­traZeneca, like the rest of the lead­ing de­vel­op­ers work­ing on a pan­dem­ic vac­cine, has been bar­rel­ing ahead in­to late-stage piv­otal work on a jab for the coro­n­avirus that has dis­rupt­ed the world. But at every quick step, ex­ecs at the multi­na­tion­al have al­so re­peat­ed­ly as­sured all in­volved that they will not hes­i­tate to slow things down if war­rant­ed.

The next big ques­tion is how long As­traZeneca’s vac­cine could be on pause and whether there could be a spillover in­volv­ing oth­er vac­cine mak­ers.

An­drew Berens at SVB Leerink put it this way, siz­ing up the im­pact if it is trans­verse myelitis:

AZN’s vac­cine study may be post­poned by weeks to months, as the safe­ty data­base is scru­ti­nized and tri­al pro­to­cols re­vised. Fur­ther, this AE could have the po­ten­tial to slow down vac­cine de­vel­op­ment more broad­ly. Trans­verse myelitis has not been de­fin­i­tive­ly linked to any com­mer­cial vac­cines, but it has been shown to be re­lat­ed to nat­ur­al virus in­fec­tion, and a few cas­es of trans­verse myelitis were de­scribed af­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion of the MMR, vari­cel­la, and he­pati­tis B vac­cines (the mech­a­nis­tic ev­i­dence was de­ter­mined to be weak per the In­sti­tute of Med­i­cine, cur­rent­ly the Na­tion­al Acad­e­my of Med­i­cine).

Safe­ty is­sues — par­tic­u­lar­ly when they could be tied to a se­ri­ous ad­verse event — loom par­tic­u­lar­ly large here. Any sug­ges­tion of a safe­ty prob­lem could raise con­cerns for all in­volved, pos­ing added prob­lems in the event they pro­voke pub­lic re­sis­tance to a shot. And there are po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions as well. As Pres­i­dent Trump has promised a vac­cine by year’s end, or even soon­er, the top vac­cines have a shot at a snap OK. Safe­ty is­sues would put a vac­cine fur­ther be­hind in the line.

Jef­feries’ Michael Yee was quick to pick up on that as­pect, writ­ing:

While we see this event as more of a short- to medi­um-term top­ic for de­bate, we do be­lieve these vac­cines will like­ly end up be­ing dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed on ef­fi­ca­cy and safe­ty in their Phase II­Is, which could dri­ve opin­ions on which is “best” and even­tu­al mar­ket up­take.

At our lat­est count, we in­clude the As­traZeneca vac­cine in 3rd place among 29 com­pa­nies in or near the clin­ic, right be­hind the mR­NA lead­ers at Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech and Mod­er­na. They’ve been work­ing with $1.2 bil­lion in pub­lic fi­nanc­ing for this work, with the Phase III get­ting un­der­way in Ju­ly. In­ves­ti­ga­tors plan to re­cruit 30,000 pa­tients in the US and 50,000 world­wide as they look for a broad pa­tient group to test safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy.

For a look at all End­points News coro­n­avirus sto­ries, check out our spe­cial news chan­nel.

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Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

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Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

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Credit: Shutterstock

How Chi­na turned the ta­bles on bio­phar­ma's glob­al deal­mak­ing

Fenlai Tan still gets chills thinking about the darkest day of his life.

Three out of eight lung cancer patients who received a tyrosine kinase inhibitor developed by his company, Betta Pharma, died in the span of a month. Tan, the chief medical officer, was summoned to Peking Union Medical College Hospital, where the head of the clinical trial department told him that the trial investigators would be conducting an autopsy to see if the patients had died of the disease — they were all very sick by the time they enrolled — or of interstitial lung disease, a deadly side effect tied to the TKI class that’s been reported in Japan.

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The Rett syndrome gene therapy drug made by AveXis — the biotech that was bought, kept separate, then renamed and finally absorbed by Novartis into its R&D division — has been dropped by the biopharma.

In Novartis’ third quarter financial report, the pharma had found that preclinical data did not support development of the gene therapy into IND-enabling trials and beyond. The announcement comes a year after Novartis told the Rett Society how excited it was by the drug — and its potential benefits and uses.

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FDA is much worse than its reg­u­la­to­ry peers at proac­tive­ly dis­clos­ing da­ta, re­searchers find

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In a study published recently in the Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics, Yale and other academic lawyers and researchers found that between 2016 and April 2021, the EMA proactively released data for 123 unique medical products, while Health Canada proactively released data for 73 unique medical products between 2019 and April 2021. What’s more, the EMA and Health Canada didn’t proactively release the same data on the same drugs. In stark contrast, the FDA in 2018 only proactively disclosed data supporting one drug that was approved that year.

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The German company signed a memorandum of understanding, after a meeting between Rwanda’s Minister of Health, Daniel Ngamije, Senegal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Aïssata Tall Sall, and senior BioNTech officials. Construction plans have been finalized, and assets have been ordered. The agreement will help bring end-to-end manufacturing to Africa, and as many as several hundred million doses of vaccines per year, though initial production will be more modest.

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Aaron Siri, Siri & Glimstad

FDA shuts down an­ti-vax lawyer's pe­ti­tion to end Mod­er­na and J&J EUAs

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The FDA said so in a letter to an anti-vax lawyer based in New York City. Aaron Siri, from Siri & Glimstad, requested in a formal petition that the EUAs granted to Moderna and J&J be revoked after weeks of back-and-forth email correspondence with Peter Marks, Lorrie McNeill and others at the FDA.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

With San­doz con­tin­u­ing to drag on No­var­tis, Vas Narasimhan says he may fi­nal­ly be ready for a sale or spin­off

After years of rehab work aimed at getting Sandoz in fighting trim to compete in a market overshadowed by declining prices, CEO Vas Narasimhan took a big step toward possibly selling or spinning off the giant generic drug player.

The pharma giant flagged plans to launch a strategic review of the business in its Q3 update, noting that “options range from retaining the business to separation.”

Analysts have been poking and prodding Novartis execs for years now as Narasimhan attempted to remodel a business that has been a drag on its performance during most of his reign in the CEO suite. The former R&D chief has made it well known that he’s devoted to the innovative meds side of the business, where they see the greatest potential for growth.

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