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.

Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer speaks at a meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force, and pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

OWS shifts spot­light to drugs to fight Covid-19, hand­ing Re­gen­eron $450M to be­gin large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US

The US government is on a spending spree. And after committing billions to vaccines defense operations are now doling out more of the big bucks through Operation Warp Speed to back a rapid flip of a drug into the market to stop Covid-19 from ravaging patients — possibly inside of 2 months.

The beneficiary this morning is Regeneron, the big biotech engaged in a frenzied race to develop an antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 that just started a late-stage program to prove its worth in fighting the virus. BARDA and the Department of Defense are awarding Regeneron a $450 million contract to cover bulk delivery of the cocktail starting as early as late summer, with money added for fill/finish and storage activities.

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UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen shares spike as ex­ecs com­plete a de­layed pitch for their con­tro­ver­sial Alzheimer's drug — the next move be­longs to the FDA

Biogen is stepping out onto the high wire today, reporting that the team working on the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab has now completed their submission to the FDA. And they want the agency to bless it with a priority review that would cut the agency’s decision-making time to a mere 6 months.

The news drove a 10% spike in Biogen’s stock $BIIB ahead of the bell.

Part of that spike can be attributed to a relief rally. Biogen execs rattled backers and a host of analysts earlier in the year when they unexpectedly delayed their filing to the third quarter. That delay provoked all manner of speculation after CEO Michel Vounatsos and R&D chief Al Sandrock failed to persuade influential observers that the pandemic and other factors had slowed the timeline for filing. Actually making the pitch at least satisfies skeptics that the FDA was not likely pushing back as Biogen was pushing in. From the start, Biogen execs claimed that they were doing everything in cooperation with the FDA, saying that regulators had signaled their interest in reviewing the submission.

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FDA bars the door — for now — against Mer­ck’s star can­cer drug af­ter Roche beat them to the punch

Merck has been handed a rare setback at the FDA.

After filing for the accelerated approval of a combination of their star PD-1 drug Keytruda with Eisai’s Lenvima as a first-line treatment for unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma, the FDA nixed the move, handing out a CRL because Roche beat them to the punch on the same indication by a matter of weeks.

According to Merck:

Ahead of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act action dates of Merck’s and Eisai’s applications, another combination therapy was approved based on a randomized, controlled trial that demonstrated overall survival. Consequently, the CRL stated that Merck’s and Eisai’s applications do not provide evidence that Keytruda in combination with Lenvima represents a meaningful advantage over available therapies for the treatment of unresectable or metastatic HCC with no prior systemic therapy for advanced disease. Since the applications for KEYNOTE-524/Study 116 no longer meet the criteria for accelerated approval, both companies plan to work with the FDA to take appropriate next steps, which include conducting a well-controlled clinical trial that demonstrates substantial evidence of effectiveness and the clinical benefit of the combination.

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Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na stick to Ju­ly for its Phase III as ru­mors swirl; Fol­low­ing US lead, EU buys up Covid-19 treat­ments

The Phase III might be delayed from its original early July goal, but Moderna says it will still kick off the pivotal study for what could ultimately be the first Covid-19 vaccine before the end of the month.

A day after Reuters reported that squabbling between the Cambridge biotech and government regulators had held up the trial by about two weeks, Moderna released a statement saying that they had completed enrollment of their 650-person Phase II trial and were on track to begin Phase III by the end of the month. The protocol for that study, which is meant to prove whether or not the vaccine can prevent people from becoming sick, has been finalized, they said.

Sin­gu­lar fo­cus on ROR1 earns Velos­Bio $137M to fund PhI ADC and oth­er pro­grams

Years after selling Acerta to AstraZeneca for $7 billion, largely on the promise of its BTK inhibitor, Dave Johnson has once again gathered hefty financial support behind a new cancer target.

Matrix Capital Management and Surveyor Capital are leading a $137 million round for VelosBio, which has recently begun a Phase I study for its lead antibody-drug conjugate targeted against ROR1. Johnson took up the CEO post in October 2018.

Roger Tung, Concert Pharmaceuticals CEO (Concert)

Con­cert gets BTD for alope­cia drug, set­ting up a late-stage show­down with gi­ant ri­val Pfiz­er

Concert Pharmaceuticals’ path to developing a drug that treats alopecia areata has been bumpy, but the pharma company scored a win Wednesday.

The FDA granted Concert a Breakthrough Therapy Designation (BTD) for its oral Janus kinase inhibitor, named CTP-543, paving the way for a Phase III study of the drug to begin in the fourth quarter of 2020. The news follows positive Phase II results from last September, which saw the drug meet its primary endpoint in both 8 mg and 12 mg twice-daily doses.

Alexander Vos, VarmX CEO

'Fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­en­t' from Por­to­la, Dutch biotech lands €32M to steer an­ti-an­ti­co­ag­u­lant through the clin­ic

Portola may not have had much success proving the commercial value of an anti-anticoagulant, but that’s not stopping European investors from pouring $36.2 million (€32 million) into what they see as a superior approach put forth by a Dutch biotech.

VarmX’s blood thinner reversal agent stems from research done by founder and CSO Pieter Reitsma at Leiden University Medical Center. A modified recombinant form of factor X, VMX-C001 “has an insertion of 16 amino acids that replaces a stretch of 7 amino acids in the so-called serine protease domain” compared to the native coagulation factor, CEO Alexander Vos told Endpoints News.

Trump and Navar­ro press again for hy­drox­y­chloro­quine. Can the FDA stay in­de­pen­dent?

Tuesday morning, economist and Trump advisor Peter Navarro walked onto the White House driveway and promptly brought a political cloud back onto the FDA.

Speaking to a White House pool reporter, Navarro said that four Detroit doctors were, based on a single disputed study, filing for the FDA to again issue an emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial pill that President Trump hyped for months as a Covid-19 treatment over the objections of his own scientists. Then, while avoiding directly calling for the FDA to OK the drug, blasted the agency. He said its decision to pull an earlier authorization “was based on bad science” and “had a tremendously negative effect” on doctors and patients.

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Donald and Melania Trump watch the smoke of fireworks from the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2020 (via Getty)

Which drug de­vel­op­ers of­fer Trump a quick, game-chang­ing ‘so­lu­tion’ as the pan­dem­ic roars back? Eli Lil­ly and Ab­Cellera look to break out of the pack

We are unleashing our nation’s scientific brilliance and will likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year.

— Donald Trump, July 4

Next week administration officials plan to promote a new study they say shows promising results on therapeutics, the officials said. They wouldn’t describe the study in any further detail because, they said, its disclosure would be “market-moving.”

— NBC News, July 3

Something’s cooking. And it’s not just July 4 leftovers involving stale buns and uneaten hot dogs.

Over the long weekend observers picked up signs that the focus in the Trump administration may swiftly shift from the bright spotlight on vaccines being promised this fall, around the time of the election, to include drugs that could possibly keep patients out of the hospital and take the political sting out of the soaring Covid-19 numbers causing embarrassment in states that swiftly reopened — as Trump cheered along.

So far, Gilead has been the chief beneficiary of the drive on drugs, swiftly offering enough early data to get remdesivir an emergency authorization and into the hands of the US government. But their drug, while helpful in cutting stays, is known for a limited, modest effect. And that won’t tamp down on the hurricane of criticism that’s been tearing at the White House, and buffeting the president’s most stalwart core defenders as the economy suffers.

We’ve had positive early-stage vaccine data, most recently from Pfizer and BioNTech, playing catchup on an mRNA race led by Moderna — where every little sign of potential trouble is magnified into a lethal threat, just as every advance excites a frenzy of support. But that race still has months to play out, with more Phase I data due ahead of the mid-stage numbers looming ahead. A vaccine may not be available in large enough quantities until well into 2021, which is still wildly ambitious.

So what about a drug solution?

Trump’s initial support for a panacea focused on hydroxychloroquine. But that fizzled in the face of data underscoring its ineffectiveness — killing trials that aren’t likely to be restarted because of a recent population-based study offering some support. And there are a number of existing drugs being repurposed to see how they help hospitalized patients.

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