Covid-19 roundup: J&J charts swift path to 1B vac­cine dos­es; Em­bassy ca­ble spot­lights pos­si­ble Wuhan lab con­nec­tion to coro­n­avirus

J&J, the first large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny to un­veil its per­for­mance in the first quar­ter, ac­knowl­edged the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has had a sharp im­pact across its full-year guid­ance and of­fered some fresh de­tails on its Covid-19 vac­cine in de­vel­op­ment.

J&J, like its peers, is at­tempt­ing to do in six to 12 months what usu­al­ly takes 5 to 7 years, CEO Alex Gorsky re­mind­ed an­a­lysts on a con­fer­ence call on Mon­day.

The plan is to ini­ti­ate hu­man test­ing of its can­di­date by Sep­tem­ber, have safe­ty and da­ta by the end of the year, and have the vac­cine ready on a not-for-prof­it ba­sis for emer­gency pan­dem­ic use in ear­ly 2021, ex­ec­u­tives said, adding that they ex­pect to have the ca­pac­i­ty to gen­er­ate 600 to 900 mil­lion dos­es at the start of 2021 and ramp up to a bil­lion dos­es over the course of the year.

Source: J&J, 2020

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

The Band-Aid mak­ers’ cuts across its 2020 guid­ance were dri­ven ex­clu­sive­ly due to the un­cer­tain­ty sur­round­ing its med­ical de­vice busi­ness linked to de­ferred pro­ce­dures, ex­ec­u­tives stressed.

Source: J&J, 2020

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

“Our es­ti­mates of the Covid-19 im­pact as­sume the rel­a­tive shape of the Covid-19 curve as be­ing more of an acute short­er-term im­pact, rather than a pro­longed im­pact,” said CFO Joe Wolk, ex­plain­ing the ba­sis of the com­pa­ny’s re­vised 2020 pro­jec­tions.

The as­sump­tions at play here are a mid-to-late April peak; that the virus does re­turn with the “same in­ten­si­ty” in the fall, in that the world will be bet­ter pre­pared to test, iden­ti­fy and iso­late it, and ther­a­peu­tic op­tions may be avail­able; that elec­tive pro­ce­dures and doc­tor vis­its will large­ly be per­mis­si­ble in the sec­ond half of 2020 — with re­cov­ery for pro­ce­dures be­gin­ning in the third quar­ter and im­prov­ing fur­ther in the last quar­ter; and eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tions that have a knock-on ef­fect on em­ploy­ment and in­sur­ance cov­er­age could be­gin to im­prove in the sec­ond half of the year, he said.

Source: J&J, 2020

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

In the first quar­ter, glob­al sales of the com­pa­ny’s med­ical de­vices al­so fell near­ly 5% year-over-year as the coro­n­avirus cri­sis de­ferred med­ical pro­ce­dures in ar­eas such as or­tho­pe­dics and oph­thal­mol­o­gy. The ap­petite for med­ical de­vices will be un­cer­tain over the course of the year, the com­pa­ny said.

“We be­lieve hos­pi­tal sys­tems will have the ca­pac­i­ty to make up dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures from ear­li­er in the year, but we sus­pect it could take time for pa­tients to get com­fort­able sched­ul­ing an elec­tive pro­ce­dure, hos­pi­tals and sur­geons may still be re­cov­er­ing from peak Covid-19 im­pact,” Wolk said. “And there will be eco­nom­ic chal­lenges we dis­cussed ear­li­er, name­ly a po­ten­tial im­pact on the num­ber of in­sured pa­tients, and a chang­ing pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of in­come in the near term. Those fac­tors lead us to as­sume a re­cov­ery in a range of ze­ro per­cent to 15%.”

Con­verse­ly, J&J’s over-the-counter and con­sumer prod­ucts busi­ness saw some growth, as hoard­ing and stock­ing up be­hav­ior saw an uptick in the quar­ter. How­ev­er, these gains are ex­pect­ed to cor­rect over the year, al­though de­mand for the com­pa­ny’s sun­screen prod­ucts will un­der­stand­ably slow.

Even the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal busi­ness saw a mar­gin­al ben­e­fit as providers stocked up on 90-day sup­plies ver­sus the pre­vi­ous 30-day par­a­digm in the quar­ter, apart from gains in mar­ket share that were mar­gin­al­ly off­set by biosim­i­lar and gener­ic com­pe­ti­tion. J&J ex­pects a “small lev­el of dis­rup­tion” as­so­ci­at­ed with de­layed di­ag­noses and new pa­tient starts in the com­ing months. Still, the sta­tus of its 2020 pro­ject­ed reg­u­la­to­ry fil­ings re­main in­tact, the com­pa­ny said, un­der­scor­ing that it has not re­ceived no­ti­fi­ca­tions from reg­u­la­to­ry au­thor­i­ties on any po­ten­tial de­lays.

As ex­pect­ed, the com­pa­ny stuck by its div­i­dend, in­deed lift­ing it for the 58th con­sec­u­tive year, but dis­closed that it was not plan­ning to en­gage in any stock re­pur­chase pro­gram for the fore­see­able fu­ture. Mean­while, while it is plan­ning to hold off on di­vesti­tures giv­en the fi­nan­cial en­vi­ron­ment, the com­pa­ny did in­di­cate that it is still shop­ping for deals.

“The cur­rent cri­sis does not re­duce our de­sire to do these trans­ac­tions. In fact, giv­en our fi­nan­cial strength, we may be in a bet­ter po­si­tion to find op­por­tu­ni­ties that will aug­ment sus­tain­able long term growth,” Wolk said.

— Na­tal­ie Grover

The­o­ries that the coro­n­avirus orig­i­nat­ed in a Wuhan lab are re­vived by warn­ings from US em­bassy — re­port

The no­tion that the coro­n­avirus orig­i­nat­ed in a lab in Wuhan took root ear­ly in the brew­ing pan­dem­ic, spread on­line and nev­er com­plete­ly died out — de­spite re­peat­ed as­sur­ances that the virus is of an­i­mal ori­gin and was not en­gi­neered in a lab.

Now re­ports are cir­cu­lat­ing that US Em­bassy of­fi­cials in Chi­na sent back a pair of of­fi­cial warn­ings about a lack of biosafe­ty mea­sures at one of the sus­pect­ed re­search fa­cil­i­ties where re­searchers car­ried out work on bat coro­n­avirus­es. And that rais­es the pos­si­bil­i­ty — I’ll em­pha­size pos­si­bil­i­ty — that the virus may have es­caped the lab.

The lab is the Wuhan In­sti­tute of Vi­rol­o­gy, which Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Josh Ro­gin notes re­ceived the high­est biose­cu­ri­ty lev­el rat­ing 5 years ago — a first in Chi­na. Re­searchers at the cen­ter led by Shi Zhengli were study­ing bat coro­n­avirus­es linked to SARS. The oth­er lab that has at­tract­ed at­ten­tion is the Wuhan Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

An ear­ly 2018 ca­ble from the em­bassy re­port­ed:

“Dur­ing in­ter­ac­tions with sci­en­tists at the WIV lab­o­ra­to­ry, they not­ed the new lab has a se­ri­ous short­age of ap­pro­pri­ate­ly trained tech­ni­cians and in­ves­ti­ga­tors need­ed to safe­ly op­er­ate this high-con­tain­ment lab­o­ra­to­ry.”

The Chi­nese sci­en­tists re­port­ed on their work in a pa­per ti­tled: “Dis­cov­ery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-re­lat­ed coro­n­avirus­es pro­vides new in­sights in­to the ori­gin of SARS coro­n­avirus.”

And that has US of­fi­cials buzzing about a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion to Covid-19, Ro­gin re­ports.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has re­port­ed its the­o­ry that the out­break be­gan at a Wuhan fish mar­ket. But since then the Post colum­nist says that the Chi­nese have locked down any in­fo on the source of the virus.

The WIV, mean­while, in­sists it had no con­nec­tion to the out­break and weeks ago their sci­en­tists said that the 2019-nCoV virus was a bat-de­rived coro­n­avirus.

Just an­oth­er con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry? Per­haps. But Ro­gin thinks it’s a lead that ought to be fol­lowed in de­ter­min­ing ex­act­ly where the virus orig­i­nat­ed, with an eye to pre­vent­ing any re-oc­cur­rence, whether man-made or na­ture-made. — John Car­roll

GSK, Sanofi en­ter pact to co-de­vel­op vac­cine

British drug­mak­er GSK, whose vac­cine ad­ju­vant tech­nol­o­gy is al­ready be­ing used by two Chi­nese com­pa­nies and an Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ty as the groups de­vel­op Covid-19 vac­cines, is now join­ing forces with its French peer Sanofi to work on a vac­cine.

The Eu­rope-based drug­mak­ers will join a cadre of oth­ers — in­clud­ing Mod­er­na, Pfiz­er and a pla­toon of aca­d­e­m­ic groups — fever­ish­ly work­ing on a weapon that could rel­e­gate the of­ten life-threat­en­ing ill­ness to the an­nals of the past.

Sanofi’s re­com­bi­nant DNA tech­nol­o­gy, which is the ba­sis of the com­pa­ny’s li­censed in­fluen­za prod­uct in the Unit­ed States, is set to make the Covid-19 vac­cine more po­tent and eas­i­er to man­u­fac­ture at scale with the ad­di­tion of GSK’s ad­ju­vant. The can­di­date is ex­pect­ed to en­ter hu­man tri­als in the sec­ond half of this year and, if suc­cess­ful, the com­pa­nies aim to com­plete the de­vel­op­ment re­quired for de­ploy­ment by the sec­ond half of 2021.

De­fin­i­tive terms of the pact, which joins two of the world’s largest vac­cine com­pa­nies, will be ironed out over the com­ing weeks.

Sanofi al­so has two oth­er Covid-19 projects in its reper­toire. In Feb­ru­ary, the com­pa­ny said it was de­vel­op­ing a Covid-19 vac­cine can­di­date in part­ner­ship with BAR­DA, us­ing its egg-free, re­com­bi­nant DNA plat­form and work from a pre­vi­ous SARS vac­cine. The fol­low­ing month, Sanofi un­veiled it was part­ner­ing with Trans­late Bio to cre­ate an mR­NA vac­cine can­di­date for Covid-19. — Na­tal­ie Grover

As­traZeneca kicks off Calquence tri­al against Covid-19

Months af­ter scor­ing ex­pand­ed ap­proval for its BTK in­hibitor Calquence, As­traZeneca has an­nounced it will be test­ing the ther­a­py in a tri­al de­signed to eval­u­ate the agent’s ef­fect on mor­tal­i­ty and di­min­ish­ing the need for as­sist­ed ven­ti­la­tion in pa­tients with life-threat­en­ing Covid-19 symp­toms.

As­traZeneca’s Calquence be­longs to a fam­i­ly of drugs that thwart Bru­ton’s ty­ro­sine ki­nase, an en­zyme that plays a role in onco­genic sig­nal­ing and the rise of some leukemic cells. It is a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion BTK in­hibitor, de­signed to be a safer and more tol­er­a­ble op­tion for cer­tain blood can­cer pa­tients, ver­sus J&J and Ab­b­Vie’s first it­er­a­tion — Im­bru­vi­ca — which has gen­er­at­ed bil­lions in sales, but car­ries sig­nif­i­cant side-ef­fects.

Ear­ly clin­i­cal da­ta sug­gest Calquence in­duces di­min­ished in­flam­ma­tion and re­duces the sever­i­ty of Covid-19-re­lat­ed res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­tress, the com­pa­ny said, adding that the im­pact of the drug will be mea­sured in hos­pi­tal­ized pa­tients both in­side and out­side ICUs. — Na­tal­ie Grover

Chi­na green­lights two more vac­cine tri­als

In mid-March, Chi­na’s CanSi­no Bi­o­log­ics be­came one of the fron­trun­ners in the race to de­vel­op a Covid-19 vac­cine. Now, two oth­er Chi­nese drug­mak­ers have se­cured ap­proval to kick off hu­man test­ing for their re­spec­tive vac­cine can­di­dates.

The ex­per­i­men­tal vac­cines were de­vel­oped by Wuhan In­sti­tute of Bi­o­log­i­cal Prod­ucts un­der the Chi­na Na­tion­al Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Group (Sinopharm), and Bei­jing-based com­pa­ny Sino­vac Re­search and De­vel­op­ment. Tri­als have be­gun, news agency Xin­hua re­port­ed on Tues­day.

Un­like CanSi­no’s re­com­bi­nant ade­n­ovirus vec­tor vac­cine, these two com­pa­nies are de­vel­op­ing in­ac­ti­vat­ed vac­cines in which dead pathogens, in this case SARS-CoV-2, are used to en­hance im­muno­genic­i­ty. Such vac­cines al­ready ex­ist to pro­tect against dis­eases such as he­pati­tis A and in­fluen­za.

Sinopharm, which is al­so work­ing on an­oth­er in­ac­ti­vat­ed vac­cine and a ge­net­i­cal­ly en­gi­neered vac­cine for Covid-19, has set aside $142 mil­lion for its vac­cine re­search. Sino­vac, which has ex­pe­ri­ence de­vel­op­ing a SARS vac­cine, has shown promis­ing cross-neu­tral­iza­tion re­ac­tion to dif­fer­ent Covid-19 strains, the re­port said. — Na­tal­ie Grover

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

In a sec­ond big set­back for Covid-19 an­ti­body treat­ment hopes, Re­gen­eron halts en­roll­ment for more se­vere pa­tients

Regeneron has just delivered more bad news for the hope that neutralizing antibodies could be used to treat patients with more severe forms of Covid-19.

The New York biotech said today that an independent monitoring committee recommended halting enrollment of patients who need high-flow oxygen or mechanical ventilation in one of the trials on their antibody cocktail, after finding “a potential safety signal” and “an unfavorable risk/benefit profile.” The news comes a week after the NIH scrapped a trial of Eli Lilly’s Covid-19 antibody after finding it was having little effect on an initial cohort of hospitalized patients.

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Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

A p-val­ue of 0.38? NE­JM re­sults raise new ques­tions for Eli Lil­ly's vaunt­ed Covid an­ti­body

Generally, a p-value of 0.38 means your drug failed and by a fair margin. Depending on the company, the compound and the trial, it might mean the end of the program. It could trigger layoffs.

For Eli Lilly, though, it was part of the key endpoint on a trial that landed them a $1.2 billion deal with the US government to supply up to nearly 1 million Covid-19 antibodies.

So what does one make of that? Was the endpoint not so important, as Lilly maintains? Or did the US government promise a princely sum for a pedestrian drug?

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Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Andreas Arnold/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Flush with $486M con­tract, As­traZeneca signs Lon­za up to man­u­fac­ture an­ti­bod­ies; BioN­Tech's Ugur Sahin ex­pects vac­cine da­ta 'in a fort­night'

Days after scoring a $486 million BARDA contract to develop and manufacture its long-acting antibody combo for Covid-19, AstraZeneca has tapped Lonza to produce the drug substance at its mid-scale facility in Portsmouth, NH.

The drug, dubbed AZD7442, puts together two antibodies, first discovered by scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, derived from convalescent patients who recovered from a SARS-CoV-2 infection. AstraZeneca licensed them in June and has since further engineered them with half-life extension and reduced Fc receptor binding.

Daphne Koller, Getty

Bris­tol My­er­s' Richard Har­g­reaves pays $70M to launch a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion al­liance with a star play­er in the ma­chine learn­ing world

Bristol Myers Squibb is turning to one of the star upstarts in the machine learning world to go back to the drawing board and come up with the disease models needed to find drugs that can work against two of the toughest targets in the neuro world.

Daphne Koller’s well-funded insitro is getting $70 million in cash and near-term milestones to use their machine learning platform to create induced pluripotent stem cell-derived disease models for ALS and frontotemporal dementia.

George Golumbeski (L) and Faheem Hasnain

George Golumbes­ki and Fa­heem Has­nain team up with Ver­tex Ven­tures HC in man­ag­ing $320M of biotech cash

Two longtime biotech veterans are joining a multibillion dollar VC firm in order to help steer its latest fund.

George Golumbeski and Faheem Hasnain have signed on to Vertex Ventures HC as executive advisors, the company announced Thursday, and will assist with their depth of experience in managing $320 million of capital. Both have had previous working relationships with managing partners Carolyn Ng and Lori Hu, which evolved “organically” to get to this point, Ng said.

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As­traZeneca sells off heart fail­ure and hy­per­ten­sion drugs to Chep­lapharm for $400M

Out with the old and in with the new: AstraZeneca is selling off two heart failure and hypertension drugs to Germany-based Cheplapharm, bagging $400 million and making way for development in other areas.

Cheplapharm paid $200 million for the European rights to Atacand (candesartan cilexetil) and Atacand Plus (candesartan cilexetil and hydrochlorothiazide) back in 2018. They’re now doubling that amount for commercial control in more than 70 countries.

News brief­ing: Ax­o­vant faces months of de­lay on lead Parkin­son's gene ther­a­py; Chi­nese CAR-T biotech nabs $100M

One of Axovant’s top gene therapy prospects for its second act is hitting a roadblock that could push its clinical timelines back by almost a year.

In an update, the biotech said it was informed about delays in CMC data and third-part fill-finish issues around mid-October by its manufacturing partner, Oxford Biomedica. Axovant has been developing a suspension-based process for the Parkinson’s drug; with that taking longer than expected, it now believes “it is unlikely that its planned randomized, sham-controlled trial of AXO-Lenti-PD will enroll patients by the end of calendar year 2021.”

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Covid-19 roundup: Boehringer pulls a drug out of the pipeline for a PhII Covid-19 tri­al; No­vavax de­lays PhI­II tri­al in US, with PhII da­ta com­ing Fri­day

With big questions still hanging over the fate of the vaccines and drugs now in late-stage development for Covid-19, Boehringer Ingelheim is pulling one of its early-stage drugs into a Phase II trial to see if it can help some of the most severely afflicted patients.

Put through a safety study last year, researchers have been intrigued by the potential of BI 764198 — a TRPC6 inhibitor — as a treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which can cause immense damage and death for patients exposed to the virus.