World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a press conference following an emergency committee meeting over Ebola epidemic in Democratic Republic of Congo at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on October 18, 2019. (via Getty Images)

As Con­go Ebo­la out­break fes­ters, FDA ap­proves first vac­cine to com­bat dead­ly virus

As an Ebo­la out­break rages on in the De­mo­c­ra­t­ic Re­pub­lic of Con­go — the FDA has ap­proved the first vac­cine to pro­tect against the dead­ly he­m­or­rhag­ic virus, months ear­li­er than ex­pect­ed. Man­u­fac­tured by Mer­ck the de­vel­op­ment of the vac­cine, chris­tened Erve­bo, be­gan dur­ing the West African out­break that oc­curred be­tween 2014 and 2016, which killed more than 11,000.

The ap­proval for the ge­net­i­cal­ly en­gi­neered at­ten­u­at­ed live vac­cine comes about five weeks af­ter its Eu­ro­pean en­dorse­ment. Mer­ck ex­pects to launch the vac­cine in the third quar­ter of 2020.

“We have not yet es­tab­lished a price for ERVE­BO. Mer­ck has com­mit­ted to mak­ing the vac­cine avail­able to Gavi (the Vac­cine Al­liance)-el­i­gi­ble coun­tries at the low­est pos­si­ble ac­cess price,” a com­pa­ny spokesper­son told End­points News.

Erve­bo has been test­ed in rough­ly 16,000 in­di­vid­u­als aged 18 and above in tri­als con­duct­ed in Africa, Eu­rope, and the Unit­ed States, and da­ta show the vac­cine is ef­fec­tive against the Zaire Ebo­la virus that cir­cu­lat­ed in West Africa in 2014-2016, as well as the cur­rent out­break in DRC.

In the Guinea tri­al, 3,537 con­tacts, and con­tacts of con­tacts, of in­di­vid­u­als with lab­o­ra­to­ry-con­firmed Ebo­la virus dis­ease re­ceived ei­ther “im­me­di­ate” or 21-day “de­layed” vac­ci­na­tion with Erve­bo. Some 2,108 in­di­vid­u­als were in the “im­me­di­ate” vac­ci­na­tion arm and 1,429 were in the “de­layed” vac­ci­na­tion group, and the re­sults show that Erve­bo was found to be 100% ef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing Ebo­la cas­es with symp­tom on­set greater than 10 days af­ter vac­ci­na­tion. No Ebo­la cas­es with symp­tom on­set greater than 10 days af­ter vac­ci­na­tion were ob­served in the im­me­di­ate clus­ter group, com­pared with 10 such Ebo­la cas­es in the 21-day de­layed clus­ter group.

An­ti­body re­spons­es to Erve­bo were as­sessed in 477 in­di­vid­u­als in Liberia, rough­ly 500 in Sier­ra Leone and about 900 in­di­vid­u­als in Cana­daSpain, and the Unit­ed States — across ge­og­ra­phy, the an­ti­body re­spons­es were sim­i­lar.

Ebo­la is thought to have in­fil­trat­ed the hu­man pop­u­la­tion through close con­tact with the blood, se­cre­tions, or­gans or oth­er bod­i­ly flu­ids of in­fect­ed an­i­mals such as fruit bats, chim­panzees, go­ril­las, mon­keys, for­est an­te­lope or por­cu­pines. Even­tu­al­ly, it spread be­tween hu­mans through di­rect con­tact, via the blood or bod­i­ly flu­ids of an in­fect­ed per­son.

The cur­rent out­break in the De­mo­c­ra­t­ic Re­pub­lic of Con­go has shown case fa­tal­i­ty rates of more than 65%, the WHO has es­ti­mat­ed. Al­though there has been a re­cent spike in in­fec­tions, the cur­rent in­fec­tion rates are well be­low the 120 cas­es a week re­port­ed dur­ing the peak of the out­break in late April. On Thurs­day, the WHO said it had record­ed the first Ebo­la re­lapse in the cur­rent epi­dem­ic.

Ear­li­er this year the WHO de­clared the out­break — which so far has in­fect­ed more than 3,350 peo­ple — a pub­lic health emer­gency of in­ter­na­tion­al con­cern. As of De­cem­ber 17, over a quar­ter of all con­firmed Ebo­la cas­es in the DRC have been in chil­dren aged less than 18 years. A Mer­ck spokesper­son said the com­pa­ny has stud­ies un­der­way test­ing Erve­bo (same for­mu­la­tion, same dose) in chil­dren.

The vac­cine was ini­tial­ly en­gi­neered by sci­en­tists from the Pub­lic Health Agency of Cana­da’s Na­tion­al Mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry and sub­se­quent­ly li­censed to a unit of NewLink Ge­net­ics Corp. In 2014, as the virus wreaked hav­oc in West Africa, Mer­ck ac­quired the tech­nol­o­gy from NewLink (Bat­tered by a se­ries of set­backs, Newlink in Oc­to­ber be­came the ve­hi­cle for a re­verse merg­er).

In re­sponse to re­quests from the WHO, since May 2018, the large US drug­mak­er has do­nat­ed 275,000 dos­es of the vac­cine to com­bat the out­break in the DRC. With the FDA ap­proval, Mer­ck has al­so qual­i­fied for a trop­i­cal dis­ease pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­er (PRV) — these vouch­ers, used to has­ten drug re­views, have been sold in the past for mil­lions, rang­ing from $95 mil­lion to even $350 mil­lion.

The rel­a­tive­ly few Ebo­la cas­es in the Unit­ed States have been due to in­ter­na­tion­al trav­el­ers or health care work­ers who have con­tract­ed the virus af­ter treat­ing Ebo­la pa­tients.

“While the risk of Ebo­la virus dis­ease in the U.S. re­mains low, the U.S. gov­ern­ment re­mains deeply com­mit­ted to fight­ing dev­as­tat­ing Ebo­la out­breaks in Africa, in­clud­ing the cur­rent out­break in the De­mo­c­ra­t­ic Re­pub­lic of the Con­go,” said An­na Abram, FDA Deputy Com­mis­sion­er for Pol­i­cy, Leg­is­la­tion, and In­ter­na­tion­al Af­fairs, in a state­ment.

Bris­tol My­ers is clean­ing up the post-Cel­gene merg­er pipeline, and they’re sweep­ing out an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point in the process

Back during the lead up to the $74 billion buyout of Celgene, the big biotech’s leadership did a little housecleaning with a major pact it had forged with Jounce. Out went the $2.6 billion deal and a collaboration on ICOS and PD-1.

Celgene, though, also added a $530 million deal — $50 million up front — to get the worldwide rights to JTX-8064, a drug that targets the LILRB2 receptor on macrophages.

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UP­DAT­ED: Leg­end fetch­es $424 mil­lion, emerges as biggest win­ner yet in pan­dem­ic IPO boom as shares soar

Amid a flurry of splashy pandemic IPOs, a J&J-partnered Chinese biotech has emerged with one of the largest public raises in biotech history.

Legend Biotech, the Nanjing-based CAR-T developer, has raised $424 million on NASDAQ. The biotech had originally filed for a still-hefty $350 million, based on a range of $18-$20, but managed to fetch $23 per share, allowing them to well-eclipse the massive raises from companies like Allogene, Juno, Galapagos, though they’ll still fall a few dollars short of Moderna’s record-setting $600 million raise from 2018.

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As it hap­pened: A bid­ding war for an an­tibi­ot­ic mak­er in a mar­ket that has rav­aged its peers

In a bewildering twist to the long-suffering market for antibiotics — there has actually been a bidding war for an antibiotic company: Tetraphase.

It all started back in March, when the maker of Xerava (an FDA approved therapy for complicated intra-abdominal infections) said it had received an offer from AcelRx for an all-stock deal valued at $14.4 million.

The offer was well-timed. Xerava was approved in 2018, four years after Tetraphase posted its first batch of pivotal trial data, and sales were nowhere near where they needed to be in order for the company to keep its head above water.

Drug man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Lon­za taps Roche/phar­ma ‘rein­ven­tion’ vet as its new CEO

Lonza chairman Albert Baehny took his time headhunting a new CEO for the company, making it absolutely clear he wanted a Big Pharma or biotech CEO with a good long track record in the business for the top spot. In the end, he went with the gold standard, turning to Roche’s ranks to recruit Pierre-Alain Ruffieux for the job.

Ruffieux, a member of the pharma leadership team at Roche, spent close to 5 years at the company. But like a small army of manufacturing execs, he gained much of his experience at the other Big Pharma in Basel, remaining at Novartis for 12 years before expanding his horizons.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Covid-19 roundup: Ab­b­Vie jumps in­to Covid-19 an­ti­body hunt; As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Another Big Pharma is entering the Covid-19 antibody hunt.

AbbVie has announced a collaboration with the Netherlands’ Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center and the Chinese-Dutch biotech Harbour Biomed to develop a neutralizing antibody that can treat Covid-19. The antibody, called 47D11, was discovered by AbbVie’s three partners, and AbbVie will support early preclinical work, while preparing for later preclinical and clinical development. Researchers described the antibody in Nature Communications last month.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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Mer­ck wins a third FDA nod for an­tibi­ot­ic; Mereo tack­les TIG­IT with $70M raise in hand

Merck — one of the last big pharma bastions in the beleaguered field of antibiotic drug development — on Friday said the FDA had signed off on using its combination drug, Recarbrio, with hospital-acquired bacterial pneumonia and ventilator-associated bacterial pneumonia. The drug could come handy for use in hospitalized patients who are afflicted with Covid-19, who carry a higher risk of contracting secondary bacterial infections. Once SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19, infects the airways, it engages the immune system, giving other pathogens free rein to pillage and plunder as they please — the issue is particularly pertinent in patients on ventilators, which in any case are breeding grounds for infectious bacteria.

RA Cap­i­tal, Hill­house join $310M rush to back Ever­est's climb to com­mer­cial heights in Chi­na

Money has never been an issue for Everest Medicines. With an essentially open tab from their founders at C-Bridge Capital, the biotech has gone two and a half years racking up drug after drug, bringing in top exec after top exec, and issuing clinical update after update.

But now other investors want in — and they’re betting big.

Everest is closing its Series C at $310 million. The first $50 million comes from the Jiashan National Economic and Technological Development Zone; the remaining C-2 tranche was led by Janchor Partners, with RA Capital Management and Hillhouse Capital as co-leaders. Decheng Capital, GT Fund, Janus Henderson Investors, Rock Springs Capital, Octagon Investments all joined.