Covid-19 roundup: $71M from DoD to Inovio; Pigs provide clues on Oxford vaccine; Google lends supercomputing to antiviral hunt
Inovio is locked in a legal standoff with its contract manufacturer preventing it from scaling up their vaccine, but that hasn’t stopped the Department of Defense from backing their technology.
On Tuesday, the DoD gave Inovio a $71 million contract to scale up manufacturing of the Cellectra devices that accompany their vaccines. It’s the second contract for a Covid-19 manufacturer DoD has signed this month, after a $60 million deal with Novavax on June 4. Both tranches came after the biotechs were left off the reported list of finalists for Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, although not every name on that list is known.
For Inovio, the deal comes three weeks after they sued their contract manufacturer VGXI, claiming the Pennsylvania company was holding them “hostage.” VGXI refused, Inovio alleged, to make their vaccine, citing lack of capacity, and also refused to transfer the technology for making their vaccine to another CMO, which Inovio said they were obligated to do.
The standoff comes as other companies developing Covid-19 vaccines prepared plans to make hundreds of millions or even billions of doses to combat an unprecedented global crisis. While making the vaccine, VGXI doesn’t produce the Cellectra device that goes with it.
The device is a quirk of the kind of vaccines Inovio uses: DNA vaccines. Because the DNA has to reach the cell nucleus, doctors use a device that sends an electrical charge crack open the nucleus and allow the DNA to enter.
Inovio’s vaccine is now in Phase I, with plans for a Phase II/III this summer. — Jason Mast
Pigs provide clues for Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine
Early human trials will soon give a firmer answer, but new data from pigs suggest that two doses may be better than one for AstraZeneca and Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine.
In a preprint posted today, researchers at Britain’s Pirbright Institute found that pigs who received an initial inoculation and then a booster dose 4 weeks later produced more neutralizing antibodies than their porcine counterparts, who received only a single dose. Pirbright, which works on infectious disease in animals, was working with the Jenner Instiute, the Oxford group that developed the vaccine.
A prominent question for all vaccines, the number of doses required holds particular importance for Covid-19, where researchers face the unprecedented task of trying to vaccinate the world against a new disease as quickly as possible. Merck, in choosing its vaccine partners, said that it specifically selected a candidate that required one dose because it would be easier to distribute.
AstraZeneca is now in a Phase II/III study that will examine in part how one dose of the vaccine compares to two. Their Phase I trial also asked that question, and data are pending. — Jason Mast
Google provides supercomputing power for Schrödinger, Novartis, others to hunt anitivirals
A few months after tying the knot with Google to use its cloud computing ops to deploy what amounts to supercomputer power for its discovery efforts, Schrödinger has reworked the deal specifically to widen its work on Covid-19. And Google is donating its cloud resources to provide Schrödinger the opportunity to explore the universe of chemical space for antivirals to fight Covid-19.
Working with a group of allies that includes Takeda, Novartis, Gilead Sciences, and WuXi AppTec, Schrödinger has been modeling molecules with the right profile, and using Google Cloud to “support ultra-large virtual screens for two of the targets” they have in mind.
Google Cloud’s grant — “16 million hours of NVIDIA GPU time, which if used consecutively, would equate to 1,826 years of around-the-clock computing” — gives them the chance to screen billions of molecules each week.
In turn, the developers in the group will take the lead on acquiring and assaying the best candidates, pushing ahead to lead optimization. — John Carroll
Private equity firms buy 1.2M square-foot Bristol Myers Squibb campus, try to flip it to onshore drugs
As Covid-19 began disrupting global trade early this spring and spurred countries such as India to restrict exports of drugs that could be useful against the virus, the Trump Administration began talking publicly about the need to expand the US’ capacity to make pharmaceutical ingredients onshore. That’s when a pair of private equity firms apparently saw a financial opportunity.
Lincoln Equities Group and H.I.G. Realty Partners announced yesterday that they have acquired a 1.2 million square-foot pharmaceutical campus near Princeton, New Jersey from Bristol Myers Squibb. They are now marketing it in terms consistent with the administration’s rhetoric.
“Given the current public health crisis, we anticipate pharmaceutical and life sciences manufacturers to consider ‘reshoring’ and expanding operations in the U.S.,” Lincoln president Joel Bergstein said in a statement.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but they are likely to be a substantial. A marketing brochure prepared by the brokerage firm JLL advertises that the land comes with “over $500M invested capital improvements.” The 1.2 million square feet includes nearly 200,000 already leased to PTC Therapeutics for gene therapy research and manufacturing. The biotech’s financial records indicate that the deal is costing them around $88 million over the next 15 years.
The administration has made clear, though, that there are rewards to be had. In May, the biodefense agency BARDA handed out a $384 million contract — potentially worth up to $812 million — to Phlow, a company that was precisely 3 months old and run by a doctor-executive with little experience in manufacturing. Much of that company’s operations will be based at a former Boehringer Ingelheim plant in Richmond, Virginia. — Jason Mast
Another Chinese vaccine enters human testing
A vaccine developed by the Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products will be the 7th Covid-19 vaccine to enter human testing out of China, Reuters reported.
The vaccine was co-developed by Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical and the Institute of Microbiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but the partners have been quiet so far — at least in English language outlets — and it’s not clear what type of vaccine they have. Largely, though, the country’s biotechs have focused on inactivated vaccines, in which people are given a killed virus that ideally triggers an immune response. CanSino is also developing an adenovirus vector vaccine. — Jason Mast
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