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.

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (Efren Landaos/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Pfiz­er makes an­oth­er bil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ment in Eu­rope and ex­pands again in Michi­gan

Pfizer is continuing its run of manufacturing site expansions with two new large investments in the US and Europe.

The New York-based pharma giant’s site in Kalamazoo, MI, has seen a lot of attention over the past year. As a major piece of the manufacturing network for Covid-19 vaccines and antivirals, Pfizer is gearing up to place more money into the site. Pfizer announced it will place $750 million into the facility, mainly to establish “modular aseptic processing” (MAP) production and create around 300 jobs at the site.

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Yuling Li, Innoforce CEO

In­no­force opens new man­u­fac­tur­ing site in Chi­na

Innoforce is off to the races at its new site in the city of Hangzhou, China.

The Chinese CDMO announced last week that it has started manufacturing at the new facility, which was built to offer process development and manufacturing operations for RNA, plasmid DNA, viral vectors and other cell therapeutics. It will also serve as Innoforce’s corporate HQ.

The company said it’s investing more than $200 million in the 550,000-square-foot manufacturing base for advanced therapies. The GMP manufacturing facility features space for producing plasmids with three 30-liter bioreactors. For viral vector manufacturing, Innoforce also has 200- and 500-liter bioreactors at its disposal, along with eight suites to make cell therapies. The site also includes several labs and warehouse spaces.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Thibault Camus/AP Images, Pool)

No­var­tis bol­sters Plu­vic­to's case in prostate can­cer with PhI­II re­sults

The prognosis is poor for metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) patients. Novartis wants to change that by making its recently approved Pluvicto available to patients earlier in their course of treatment.

The Swiss pharma giant unveiled Phase III results Monday suggesting that Pluvicto was able to halt disease progression in certain prostate cancer patients when administered after androgen-receptor pathway inhibitor (ARPI) therapy, but without prior taxane-based chemotherapy. The drug is currently approved for patients after they’ve received both ARPI and chemo.

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Up­dat­ed: FDA re­mains silent on or­phan drug ex­clu­siv­i­ty af­ter last year's court loss

Since losing a controversial court case over orphan drug exclusivity last year, the FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development has remained entirely silent on orphan exclusivity for any product approved since last November, leaving many sponsors in limbo on what to expect.

That silence means that for more than 70 orphan-designated indications for more than 60 products, OOPD has issued no public determination on the seven-year orphan exclusivity in the Orange Book, and no new listings of orphan exclusivity appear in OOPD’s searchable database, as highlighted recently by George O’Brien, a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington, DC office.

FDA grants or­phan drug des­ig­na­tion to Al­ger­non's ifen­prodil, while ex­clu­siv­i­ty re­mains un­clear

As the FDA remains silent on orphan drug exclusivity in the wake of a controversial court case, the agency continues to hand out new designations. The latest: Algernon Pharmaceuticals’ experimental lung disease drug ifenprodil.

The Vancouver-based company announced on Monday that ifenprodil received orphan designation in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a chronic lung condition that results in scarring of the lungs.  Most IPF patients suffer with a dry cough, and breathing can become difficult.

Rick Modi, Affinia Therapeutics CEO

Ver­tex-part­nered gene ther­a­py biotech Affinia scraps IPO plans

Affinia Therapeutics has ditched its plans to go public in a relatively closed-door market that has not favored Nasdaq debuts for the drug development industry most of this year. A pandemic surge in 2020 and 2021 opened the doors for many preclinical startups, which caught Affinia’s attention and gave the gene therapy biotech confidence in the beginning days of 2022 to send in its S-1.

But on Friday, Affinia threw in the S-1 towel and concluded now is not the time to step onto Wall Street. The biotech has put out few public announcements since the spring of this year. Endpoints News picked the startup as one of its 11 biotechs to watch last year.

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Af­ter M&A fell through, Ther­a­peu­tic­sMD sells hor­mone ther­a­py, con­tra­cep­tive ring for $140M cash plus roy­al­ties

TherapeuticsMD, a women’s health company whose one-time billion-dollar valuation seems a distant memory as its blockbuster aspirations petered out, is finally cashing out.

Australia’s Mayne Pharma is paying $140 million upfront to license essentially TherapeuticsMD’s whole portfolio, including two prescription drugs that treat conditions relating to menopause, a contraceptive vaginal ring as well as its prescription prenatal vitamin brands.

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‘Catchy’ de­sign tops big ad buys on­line for grab­bing on­col­o­gists’ at­ten­tion — sur­vey

The cancer drug ads that get oncologists’ attention online are informative and use clear, eye-catching designs. That’s ZoomRx’s assessment in its most recent tracking survey, and while not necessarily surprising, the details in the research do break a few common misconceptions.

One of those is frequency, also known as the number of impressions an ad gets. No matter how many times oncologists saw a particular cancer drug ad, effectiveness prevailed in the survey across five drug brands. ZoomRx measured effectiveness as a combination of most attention-getting, relevant information and improved perception as reported by the doctors.

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