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.

Vas Narasimhan (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

No­var­tis de­tails plans to axe 8,000 staffers as Narasimhan be­gins sec­ond phase of a glob­al re­org

We now know the number of jobs coming under the axe at Novartis, and it isn’t small.

The pharma giant is confirming a report from Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger that it is chopping 8,000 jobs out of its 108,000 global staffers. A large segment will hit right at company headquarters in Basel, as CEO Vas Narasimhan axes some 1,400 of a little more than 11,000  jobs in Switzerland.

The first phase of the work is almost done, the company says in a statement to Endpoints News. Now it’s on to phase two. In the statement, Novartis says:

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Bob Nelsen (Lyell)

As bear mar­ket con­tin­ues to beat down biotech, ARCH clos­es a $3B ear­ly-stage fund

One of the biggest names in biotech investing has a whole lot of new money to spend.

ARCH Venture Partners closed its 12th venture fund early Wednesday morning, the firm said, bringing in almost $3 billion to invest in early-stage biotechs. The move comes about a year and a half after ARCH announced its previous fund, for almost $2 billion back in January 2021.

In a statement, ARCH managing director and co-founder Bob Nelsen appeared to brush off concerns about the broader market troubles, alluding to the downturn that’s seen several biotechs downsize and the XBI fall back to almost pre-pandemic levels.

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Lina Gugucheva, NewAmsterdam Pharma CBO

Phar­ma group bets up to $1B-plus on the PhI­II res­ur­rec­tion of a once dead-and-buried LDL drug

Close to 5 years after then-Amgen R&D chief Sean Harper tamped the last spade of dirt on the last broadly focused CETP cholesterol drug — burying their $300 million upfront and the few remaining hopes for the class with it — the therapy has been fully resurrected. And today, the NewAmsterdam Pharma crew that did the Lazarus treatment on obicetrapib is taking another big step on the comeback trail with a €1 billion-plus regional licensing deal, complete with close to $150 million in upfront cash.

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How pre­pared is bio­phar­ma for the cy­ber dooms­day?

One of the largest cyberattacks in history happened on a Friday, Eric Perakslis distinctly remembers.

Perakslis, who was head of Takeda’s R&D Data Sciences Institute and visiting faculty at Harvard Medical School at the time, had spent that morning completing a review on cybersecurity for the British Medical Journal. Moments after he turned it in, he heard back from the editor: “Have you heard what’s going on right now?”

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Sanofi to cut in­sulin prices for unin­sured from $99 to $35, match­ing the in­sulin cap com­ing through Con­gress

As the House-passed bill to cap the monthly price of insulin at $35 nationwide makes its way for a Senate vote soon, Sanofi announced Wednesday morning that beginning next month it will cut the monthly price of its insulins for uninsured Americans to $35, down from $99 previously.

The announcement from Sanofi, which allows the uninsured to buy one or multiple Sanofi insulins (Lantus, Insulin Glargine U-100, Toujeo, Admelog, and Apidra) at $35 for a 30-day supply effective July 1, follows House passage (232-193) of the monthly cap in March, with just 12 Republicans voting in favor of the measure.

Hank Safferstein, Generian CEO

Astel­las sub­sidiary to part­ner with Pitts­burgh up­start in search for 'un­drug­gable' pro­teins

As Astellas continues its drive to build out its gene therapy portfolio and capabilities, a subsidiary of the Japanese pharma company has entered into a collaboration with a little-known Pittsburgh biotech.

Astellas-owned Mitobridge and Generian Pharmaceuticals announced on Wednesday that they will work together in a new deal for “undruggable” protein targets. Generian will net an undisclosed upfront payment and could get up to $180 million in milestones, should anything from its platform prove successful, as well as single-digit royalties on global net sales.

Adam Simpson, Icosavax CEO

Reel­ing from Covid flop, Icosavax says its RSV can­di­date passed ear­ly test. But in­vestors need some more con­vinc­ing

Three months separated from a disappointing readout of its Covid-19 vaccine, Icosavax is back with what it calls positive topline data for a different VLP vaccine candidate — although investors aren’t impressed.

IVX-121, a vaccine candidate for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), appeared to generate “robust” immune responses among both young and older adults, as measured by neutralizing antibodies, and appeared generally well-tolerated, Icosavax reported.

(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Some phar­ma com­pa­nies promise to cov­er abor­tion-re­lat­ed trav­el costs — while oth­ers won't go that far yet

As the US Department of Health and Human Services promises to support the millions of women who would now need to cross state lines to receive a legal abortion, a handful of pharma companies have said they will pick up employees’ travel expenses.

GSK, Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson, BeiGene, Alnylam and Gilead have all committed to covering abortion-related travel expenses just four days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and revoked women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

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Aurobindo Pharma co-founders P. V. Ram Prasad Reddy (L) and K. Nityananda Reddy

Au­robindo Phar­ma re­ceives warn­ing let­ter from In­di­a's SEC fol­low­ing more FDA ques­tion marks

Indian-based generics manufacturer Aurobindo Pharma has been in the crosshairs of the FDA for several years now, but the company is also attracting attention from regulators within the subcontinent.

According to the Indian business news site Business Standard, a warning letter was sent to the company from the Securities Exchange Board of India, or SEBI.

The letter is related to disclosures made by the company on an ongoing FDA audit of the company’s Unit-1 API facility in Hyderabad, India as well as observations made by the US regulator between 2019 and 2022.