Big Pharma has skirted long Covid, but a pipeline of small biotechs is testing treatments for lingering symptoms
Long Covid has been partly mysterious, due to the nascency of SARS-CoV-2 as well as the vastness of lingering symptoms experienced by millions of people worldwide following their initial diagnoses.
That makes long Covid quite a wide umbrella term and has led to a large gap in R&D, as it appears there’s a general unwillingness of most biopharmas to consider testing their drugs in this condition. For the most part, drugmakers interested in Covid-19 have most of their eggs in the prevention and acute treatment baskets through vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and antivirals.
Big Pharma and biopharma alike surely are not done with testing new vaccines and treatments for acute Covid-19. And some startups are just now emerging to tackle the pandemic, as evidenced just this week by the launch of a new mAb biotech — focused on a combo therapy for immunocompromised patients — led by Takeda’s former vaccines chief.
So drugmakers, including the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, Vir Biotechnology, Humanigen, Pfizer and Roche, are interested in the prospects of testing their drugs in patients with long Covid, Reuters reports.
A Pfizer spokesperson told Endpoints News in an emailed statement that the Big Pharma’s clinical trials aren’t currently evaluating long Covid, but two studies, EPIC-HR and EPIC-SR, “may provide us with relevant data to help inform future studies.” Those studies of Paxlovid include follow-up with patients for six months, the spokesperson noted.
For its part, Humanigen is testing its drug lenzilumab in hospitalized Covid-19 patients but does “not have any plans to test long COVID,” the company told Endpoints in an emailed statement.
Regeneron, which makes the emergency authorized preventative mAb known as REGEN-COV, told Endpoints that “long COVID is certainly an area of interest for Regeneron, but we have no active trials to investigate this population at this time.”
Roche, meanwhile, told Endpoints that the company recognizes “patients’ need for Long COVID treatment. We are currently looking at what we can do to meet this need. It is simply too early to share concrete plans.”
Millions of people globally still experience symptoms months after their initial infection, ranging from brain fog to gastrointestinal issues to other respiratory difficulties. But Big Pharma has seemed to fall to the wayside in creating and testing treatments for this large patient population.
So it’s mainly been junior drug developers and biotechs without any approved meds that have tried testing or plan to study their drugs in long Covid.
That list includes Axcella Therapeutics (with an investigational NASH med); NLS Pharmaceutics; First Wave BioPharma (for GI infections associated with long Covid); Ampio Pharmaceuticals; Regencell Biosciences; Organicell; Aim Immunotech; Tonix Pharmaceuticals (mid-stage study slated first half of this year); Virios Therapeutics; Pieris Pharmaceuticals; NIAID-collaborated Humanetics; and others, according to an Endpoints review of SEC filings, company statements and pipelines.
A bevy of companies ditched their Covid-19 assets before making it to market, whether for trial failures, pipeline prioritization or claiming that there were enough treatments already available.
The same could happen for biopharmas working on long Covid, and it’s already happened for Atea Pharmaceuticals. Roche’s $350 million upfront cash bet on Atea blew up in October 2021 when the biotech’s antiviral AT-527 flunked a mid-stage test. Roche called it quits on the pact a month later.
Atea also ditched a six-month follow-on study of its antiviral AT-527 that was looking at the drug’s impact on long Covid in up to 1,000 patients.
The current plan, an Atea spokesperson told Endpoints, is to develop bemnifosbuvir (AT-527) as a “preferred backbone of combination therapy for COVID-19. At this time, our program does not include plans for long-COVID.”