As killer virus out­breaks hit un­prece­dent­ed lev­els, non­prof­it hands $37.5M to Themis to tack­le Las­sa/MERS vac­cines

A non­prof­it formed in the af­ter­math of the re­cent Ebo­la out­break is hand­ing an Aus­tri­an biotech $37.5 mil­lion to put two killer dis­eases on its vac­cine to-do list: Las­sa fever and MERS.

It’s the first deal signed since the 2017 launch of the non­prof­it, which calls it­self CEPI (pro­nounced “sep­py”) – short for the Coali­tion for Epi­dem­ic Pre­pared­ness In­no­va­tions. The group’s goal is to build a glob­al vac­cine de­vel­op­ment fund, de­vot­ed to ready­ing pan­dem­ic de­fens­es dur­ing peace­time. It was formed by the gov­ern­ments of Nor­way, Ger­many, In­dia, and Japan, along with the Bill and Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion, Well­come, and the World Eco­nom­ic Fo­rum.

The group hopes to raise $1 bil­lion for the fund, which it would dole out to wor­thy re­search ef­forts. They’ve al­ready raised $630 mil­lion.

This first in­fu­sion of cash is go­ing in tranch­es over a five-year pe­ri­od to Themis Bio­science, which has a plat­form tech based on the measles vac­cine that might be use­ful against mul­ti­ple virus­es.

These two in­fec­tious dis­eases are a high pri­or­i­ty for CEPI right now, and right­ly so. MERS, which hides out in camels and has been cir­cu­lat­ing the Mid­dle East since 2012, has killed a third of the peo­ple it’s in­fect­ed. And Las­sa fever, en­dem­ic to the same parts of Africa re­cent­ly hit by Ebo­la, is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pe­ri­od of un­prece­dent­ed out­break. Las­sa fever nor­mal­ly has a fa­tal­i­ty rate of 1%, but in the cur­rent Niger­ian out­break it is thought to be clos­er to 20%, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

Richard Hatch­ett

“Es­tab­lish­ing our part­ner­ship with Themis rep­re­sents not on­ly an im­por­tant step in our jour­ney to­wards tack­ling these dis­eases, but al­so a break­through in how we can part­ner and work with vac­cine de­vel­op­ers when tra­di­tion­al mar­ket in­cen­tives for de­vel­op­ment have failed,” said CEPI’s CEO Richard Hatch­ett.

Themis’ CEO and founder Erich Tauber tells me there’s not enough fi­nan­cial up­side to tack­ling these dis­eases, which is why vac­cines aren’t be­ing de­vel­oped.

“The out­breaks oc­cur once every five or six years, and that’s not enough mar­ket push to get the vac­cines de­vel­oped,” Tauber said. “If a com­pa­ny like Themis went to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and asked for in­vest­ment to de­vel­op vac­cines for Las­sa or MERS, chances are no­body would pay us mon­ey to de­vel­op those vac­cines be­cause they are com­mer­cial risks.”

Erich Tauber

The mon­ey from CEPI will help bridge that gap. The com­pa­ny hopes the funds will take the com­pa­ny through Phase II, where de­vel­op­ment might end.

The hope, Tauber said, is to prove the vac­cines ef­fi­ca­cious in an­i­mal stud­ies and safe in large co­horts.

“But from there, the vac­cine will most like­ly have to be used on emer­gency rules,” Tauber said.

These two lat­est vac­cine projects will be added to Themis’ port­fo­lio, which in­cludes an ad­vanced pro­gram for a vac­cine against chikun­gun­ya virus, a mos­qui­to-trans­mit­ted dis­ease that can have de­bil­i­tat­ing long-term side ef­fects. That pro­gram is in Phase II tri­als in 600 pa­tients.

With its measles virus plat­form, Themis is al­so de­vel­op­ing vac­cines against Zi­ka, RSV, and norovirus, among oth­er ar­eas.


Im­age: Vi­ral dis­ease out­break. Shut­ter­stock

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.