Covid-19 roundup: An old, cheap steroid proves to be a ma­jor boon to coro­n­avirus pa­tients; BAR­DA puts $85M be­hind Re­gen­eron an­ti­body ef­fort

Re­searchers to­day spot­light­ed da­ta from a clin­i­cal study of­fer­ing the first hard ev­i­dence that a treat­ment can save the lives of pa­tients suf­fer­ing from Covid-19.

The old gener­ic dex­am­etha­sone was tied to a one-third re­duc­tion of deaths among ven­ti­lat­ed pa­tients with a one-fifth re­duc­tion in mor­tal­i­ty among a group get­ting oxy­gen. There was no ben­e­fit for pa­tients who did not re­quire res­pi­ra­to­ry as­sis­tance.

“Dex­am­etha­sone is the first drug to be shown to im­prove sur­vival in COVID-19,” not­ed Pe­ter Hor­by, an Ox­ford pro­fes­sor and a chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor in the tri­al. “This is an ex­treme­ly wel­come re­sult. The sur­vival ben­e­fit is clear and large in those pa­tients who are sick enough to re­quire oxy­gen treat­ment, so dex­am­etha­sone should now be­come stan­dard of care in these pa­tients. Dex­am­etha­sone is in­ex­pen­sive, on the shelf, and can be used im­me­di­ate­ly to save lives world­wide.”

“(I)t is fan­tas­tic that the first treat­ment demon­strat­ed to re­duce mor­tal­i­ty is one that is in­stant­ly avail­able and af­ford­able world­wide,” en­thused Ox­ford’s Mar­tin Lan­dray. — John Car­roll

BAR­DA puts $85M be­hind Re­gen­eron’s an­ti­body ef­fort

BAR­DA, the US biode­fense agency, is back­ing Re­gen­eron’s Covid-19 an­tivi­ral an­ti­body ef­fort with $85 mil­lion.

Al­though BAR­DA has al­ready promised over $2 bil­lion to ac­cel­er­ate and scale the de­vel­op­ment of Covid-19 vac­cines, but this is the largest tranche of fund­ing yet for a treat­ment ef­fort. BAR­DA worked with Re­gen­eron on their Ebo­la an­ti­body ef­fort – help­ing lead to one of the first two suc­cess­ful treat­ments for the virus in a tri­al last Au­gust – and the pair first an­nounced col­lab­o­ra­tion on a sim­i­lar ef­fort for Covid-19 in Feb­ru­ary.

The news of the fund­ing comes days af­ter Re­gen­eron put their first cock­tail of an­ti­bod­ies in the clin­ic. The Tar­ry­town-based biotech plans to even­tu­al­ly run 4 tri­als, 2 of them test­ing the drug as a treat­ment and 2 as a pro­phy­lac­tic.

HHS has al­so fund­ed an­ti­body ef­forts from As­traZeneca and SAb Bio­ther­a­peu­tics. Roche and J&J, among oth­ers, have re­ceived fund­ing for oth­er types of treat­ment. — Ja­son Mast

Pe­ter Kolchin­sky of­fers Covid-19 play­er No­vavax a thumbs up and $200M 

RA Cap­i­tal’s Pe­ter Kolchin­sky is back­ing No­vavax’s Covid-19 play, to the tune of $200 mil­lion.

A fund af­fil­i­at­ed with RA is buy­ing 4.4 mil­lion shares of stock $NVAX in the com­pa­ny at the June 12 clos­ing price.

Covid-19 has been a big help for No­vavax, which has had its share of clin­i­cal fail­ures to deal with. CEPI stepped up with its largest com­mit­ment to date, back­ing the biotech’s Phase I and Phase II tri­als for NVX-CoV2373 for up to $384 mil­lion while “dra­mat­i­cal­ly” in­creas­ing its pro­duc­tion ca­pac­i­ty for the vac­cine anti­gen as well as the ad­ju­vant need­ed to boost its ef­fi­ca­cy. That mon­ey was added on top of the $4 mil­lion CEPI sent No­vavax to get things go­ing in R&D with­out any de­lays for ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“The glob­al vac­cine ef­fort is search­ing for can­di­dates that are ca­pa­ble of both gen­er­at­ing the high­est neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­body titers and large-scale pro­duc­tion. We are ex­cit­ed to in­crease our in­vest­ment in No­vavax, which along with re­sources from CEPI and the U.S. De­part­ment of De­fense, will sup­port No­vavax in its im­por­tant work de­vel­op­ing an ef­fec­tive, scal­able vac­cine for SARS-CoV-2,” said Kolchin­sky in a state­ment. — John Car­roll

Sanofi sets aside $679M cash for new vac­cine sites in France

As Sanofi push­es its par­al­lel R&D ef­forts on a pair of Covid-19 vac­cine can­di­dates, the French drug­mak­er said it would pour $679.4 mil­lion (€610 mil­lion) in­to two vac­cine sites on its home turf.

The com­mit­ment to “make France its world class cen­ter of ex­cel­lence” comes just weeks af­ter CEO Paul Hud­son, a Brit, drew the ire of French min­is­ters by say­ing in an in­ter­view that the US gov­ern­ment “has the right to the largest pre-or­der be­cause it’s in­vest­ed in tak­ing the risk” — a com­ment Sanofi swift­ly walked back.

“Sanofi’s heart beats in France,” Hud­son said in a pre­pared state­ment. “Sanofi is a ma­jor health­care play­er in France, in Eu­rope, and world­wide. It is our re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to fo­cus our re­sources and ex­per­tise against the cur­rent pan­dem­ic, but al­so to in­vest in prepar­ing for fu­ture ones.”.

French au­thor­i­ties have been work­ing with Sanofi the last sev­er­al months to achieve this, he added, in a com­ment that echoed Ger­many’s de­ci­sion to buy a stake of mR­NA biotech Cure­Vac with €300 mil­lion in fed­er­al mon­ey. And Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron came through with a pledge of €200 mil­lion to fu­el do­mes­tic re­search and man­u­fac­tur­ing, a boost Hud­son has been ad­vo­cat­ing for.

“Every­body saw that dur­ing this cri­sis some com­mon­ly used drugs were no longer pro­duced in France and Eu­rope. So we must no longer just ask ques­tions, but draw the con­clu­sions,” Macron said at Sanofi’s Mar­cy-L’Étoile fa­cil­i­ty.

At the same time — and it might have been drowned out by the Syn­thorx buy­out and dra­mat­ic cuts in the car­dio and di­a­betes units — the com­pa­ny re­mind­ed read­ers of the press re­lease that vac­cines were iden­ti­fied as a key area for growth in the cor­po­rate strat­e­gy Hud­son laid out last year.

Sanofi plans to build a vac­cine pro­duc­tion site at Neuville-sur-Saône and a re­search cen­ter at Mar­cy-l’Étoile, cre­at­ing a whole chain from R&D to man­u­fac­tur­ing with­in the coun­try.

The for­mer fa­cil­i­ty will cost an es­ti­mat­ed €490 mil­lion over five years and is ex­pect­ed to cre­ate 200 new jobs. The lat­ter will fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing fu­ture vac­cines, with high­ly-spe­cial­ized labs fo­cused on emerg­ing dis­eases and pan­dem­ic risks. — Am­ber Tong

Im­pe­r­i­al Col­lege of Lon­don preps Phase I tri­al of mR­NA vac­cine

A new mR­NA vac­cine ef­fort is en­ter­ing the clin­ic.

Three months af­ter Mod­er­na be­gan hu­man Covid-19 vac­cine test­ing with an mR­NA can­di­date, a can­di­date based on sim­i­lar tech­nol­o­gy from the Im­pe­r­i­al Col­lege of Lon­don will go in­to an ear­ly-stage tri­al this week, Reuters re­port­ed.

Un­like vir­tu­al­ly every oth­er clin­i­cal-stage Covid-19 vac­cine, the Im­pe­r­i­al Col­lege does not have a ma­jor in­dus­try part­ner. In­stead they’ve re­ceived over $56.5 mil­lion in fund­ing from par­lia­ment and donors, and have set up a new ven­ture for com­mer­cial­iz­ing the vac­cine should it prove safe and ef­fec­tive.

Al­though sim­i­lar in prin­ci­ple to Mod­er­na’s can­di­date — putting the ge­net­ic code for a coro­n­avirus pro­tein in­to hu­man cells, which ex­press the pro­tein and trig­ger an im­mune re­sponse — the col­lege’s tech­nol­o­gy dif­fers in key ways. Called small-am­pli­fy­ing RNA, the ge­net­ic code in the vac­cine will repli­cate it­self in­side cells, al­low­ing for much small­er dos­es and thus a po­ten­tial­ly much broad­er scale. It was de­vel­oped in part by Robin Shat­tock, who has al­so de­signed the Covid-19 can­di­date.

To com­mer­cial­ize the vac­cine, the col­lege set up a new com­pa­ny called VacE­quity Glob­al Health with the Hong Kong-based in­vest­ment firm Morn­ing­side Ven­tures. Its goal will be to make the vac­cine as wide­ly avail­able as pos­si­ble, while still turn­ing a prof­it — pos­si­bly by sell­ing for slight­ly high­er prices in high-in­come than low-in­come coun­tries.

The vac­cine will be one of sev­er­al that en­ter the clin­ic in the com­ing weeks and months. Cure­Vac, one of the first biotechs to be­gin de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine and which al­so us­es mR­NA, said ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic that they would aim for tri­als in June. And to­day sci­en­tists in Sin­ga­pore said they would be­gin test­ing an mR­NA vac­cine from the US biotech Arc­turus in Au­gust. — Ja­son Mast

As­traZeneca re­veals more of man­u­fac­tur­ing plan, adds an­oth­er part­ner

The streak of man­u­fac­tur­ing and sup­ply deals As­traZeneca has struck for Ox­ford’s Covid-19 vac­cine, cou­pled with rapid progress on the clin­i­cal front, ap­pears to have em­bold­ened the com­pa­ny in di­al­ing up its hopes, with CEO Pas­cal So­ri­ot pre­dict­ing that the pro­tec­tion would last for about a year, as re­port­ed by Reuters.

Un­der ide­al cir­cum­stances — which would in­volve enough vol­un­teers giv­en place­bo get in­fect­ed by the coro­n­avirus — re­sults of the on­go­ing Phase III tri­als will be ready in Au­gust or Sep­tem­ber.

“We are man­u­fac­tur­ing in par­al­lel,” he added. “We will be ready to de­liv­er from Oc­to­ber if all goes well.”

Through a glob­al net­work of part­ners, As­traZeneca said it’s se­cured ca­pac­i­ty for 2 bil­lion dos­es through 2021. A grow­ing list of part­ners have re­served more than half of that col­lec­tive­ly: 400 mil­lion dos­es for Eu­rope in its lat­est deal with France, Ger­many, Italy and the Nether­lands; 300 mil­lion for the US; 100 mil­lion for the UK; and 400 mil­lion to low- and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries by the end of the year.

On Tues­day the phar­ma gi­ant added Co­bra Bi­o­log­ics to the con­trac­tor fold, task­ing the UK man­u­fac­tur­er with pro­vid­ing GMP man­u­fac­ture of the vac­cine can­di­date AZD1222.

Co­bra had be­gun work­ing with Ox­ford’s Jen­ner In­sti­tute in March, be­fore As­traZeneca jumped on board with its pow­er­house in­fra­struc­ture. The sci­en­tists who de­vel­oped the re­com­bi­nant ade­n­ovirus vec­tor im­mu­niza­tion were think­ing about mass pro­duc­tion ear­ly on; some of the com­pa­nies that they had tapped for their man­u­fac­tur­ing con­sor­tium, such as Ox­ford Bio­med­ica, have since teamed up with As­traZeneca.

“The agree­ment with As­traZeneca comes at an op­por­tune time for us as we bring three ad­di­tion­al vi­ral vec­tor suites on­line as part of our on­go­ing ad­vanced ther­a­pies ex­pan­sion pro­gramme,” Pe­ter Cole­man, chief ex­ec­u­tive at Co­bra, said in a state­ment. — Am­ber Tong

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

Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos (via Getty Images)

With ad­u­canum­ab caught on a cliff, Bio­gen’s Michel Vounatsos bets bil­lions on an­oth­er high-risk neu­ro play

With its FDA pitch on the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab hanging perilously close to disaster, Biogen is rolling the dice on a $3.1 billion deal that brings in commercial rights to one of the other spotlight neuro drugs in late-stage development — after it already failed its first Phase III.

The big biotech has turned to Sage Therapeutics for its latest deal, close to a year after the crushing failure of Sage-217, now dubbed zuranolone, in the MOUNTAIN study.

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Pascal Soriot (AP Images)

As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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In fi­nal days at Mer­ck, Roger Perl­mut­ter bets big on a lit­tle-known Covid-19 treat­ment

Roger Perlmutter is spending his last days at Merck, well, spending.

Two weeks after snapping up the antibody-drug conjugate biotech VelosBio for $2.75 billion, Merck announced today that it had purchased OncoImmune and its experimental Covid-19 drug for $425 million. The drug, known as CD24Fc, appeared to reduce the risk of respiratory failure or death in severe Covid-19 patients by 50% in a 203-person Phase III trial, OncoImmune said in September.

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Leonard Schleifer, Regeneron CEO (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Trail­ing Eli Lil­ly by 12 days, Re­gen­eron gets the FDA OK for their Covid-19 an­ti­body cock­tail

A month and a half after becoming the experimental treatment of choice for a newly diagnosed president, Regeneron’s antibody cocktail has received emergency use authorization from the FDA. It will be used to treat non-hospitalized Covid-19 patients who are at high-risk of progressing.

Although the Rgeneron drug is not the first antibody treatment authorized by the FDA, the news comes as a significant milestone for a company and a treatment scientists have watched closely since the outbreak began.

FDA hands Liq­uidia and Re­vance a CRL and de­fer­ral, re­spec­tive­ly, as Covid-19 cre­ates in­spec­tion chal­lenge

Two biotechs said they got turned away by the FDA on Wednesday, in part due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

North Carolina-based Liquidia Technologies was handed a CRL for its lead pulmonary arterial hypertension drug, citing the need for more CMC data and on-site pre-approval inspections, which the FDA hasn’t been able to conduct due to travel restrictions. The agency also deferred its decision on Revance Therapeutics’ BLA for its frown line treatment, because it needs to inspect the company’s northern California manufacturing facility. The action, Revance emphasized, was not a CRL.

Covid-19 roundup: Eu­rope pur­chas­es 80M dos­es of Mod­er­na's vac­cine; CO­V­AXX se­cures $2.8B in emerg­ing mar­ket pre-or­ders

With the announcement of its vaccine efficacy data last week, Moderna is starting to line up customers for its Covid-19 mRNA jabs.

The Massachusetts-based biotech announced Wednesday it has agreed to sell an initial round of 80 million doses to the European Commission, with the option to double the amount to 160 million. Once the member states rubber stamp the approval, the deal will be finalized.

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The ad­u­canum­ab co­nun­drum: The PhI­II failed a clear reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard, but no one is cer­tain what that means any­more at the FDA

Eighteen days ago, virtually all of the outside experts on an FDA adcomm got together to mug the agency’s Billy Dunn and the Biogen team when they presented their upbeat assessment on aducanumab. But here we are, more than 2 weeks later, and the ongoing debate over that Alzheimer’s drug’s fate continues unabated.

Instead of simply ruling out any chance of an approval, the logical conclusion based on what we heard during that session, a series of questionable approvals that preceded the controversy over the agency’s recent EUA decisions has come back to haunt the FDA, where the power of precedent is leaving an opening some experts believe can still be exploited by the big biotech.

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A poll sug­gests vac­cine da­ta boost­ed Pfiz­er's pub­lic im­age, but oth­er da­ta point to long road ahead

For much of the pharmaceutical industry, the pandemic presented an opportunity: to prove their value to the world and turn public opinion around on a business much of the country had come to disdain.

That theory — that helping pull the country from a pandemic could neutralize years of anger over high drug prices — was put to its biggest test this month, as three different drugmakers announced data from their Covid-19 vaccines, offering the first major evidence that industry-built inoculations could turn the tide of the outbreak in the US.