Andrew Witty (Credit: Bloomberg)

Ex-GSK chief An­drew Wit­ty sum­moned back to the front­lines of vac­cine de­vel­op­ment at em­bat­tled WHO

Dur­ing his 10-year tenure at Glax­o­SmithK­line, An­drew Wit­ty made vac­cines one of his sig­na­ture ar­eas of fo­cus, lead­ing the phar­ma gi­ant to an ap­proval for an in­fluen­za vac­cine dur­ing the H1N1 pan­dem­ic and bag­ging No­var­tis’ vac­cine unit in an as­set swap be­fore he re­tired in 2017.

Now, two years in­to his new ca­reer man­ag­ing drug ben­e­fits, Wit­ty is back in the front­lines of the race against a dead­ly virus in­fil­trat­ing the world.

The WHO has asked Wit­ty to co-lead a glob­al ef­fort to “ac­cel­er­ate the de­vel­op­ment of a Covid-19 vac­cine,” ac­cord­ing to Op­tum. He will thus be tak­ing a leave of ab­sence from the phar­ma­cy ben­e­fits man­ag­er, where he is CEO.

Wit­ty, whose ap­point­ment will be ef­fec­tive April 20, is step­ping up at a tu­mul­tuous time.

Just hours ago, Pres­i­dent Trump pub­licly chas­tised the UN agency, ac­cus­ing it of “se­vere­ly mis­man­ag­ing and cov­er­ing up the spread of the coro­n­avirus,” and made the stun­ning an­nounce­ment that the US would sus­pend its con­tri­bu­tion to the WHO. Its $400 mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion in 2019 made up 15% of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s bud­get last year.

That’s while the WHO is prepar­ing to launch an ap­peal for well over $1 bil­lion to fund op­er­a­tions against the coro­n­avirus world­wide.

It’s un­clear yet what Wit­ty’s ex­act role will be. But last week the WHO re­leased a draft blue­print for a pos­si­ble in­ter­na­tion­al tri­al to eval­u­ate mul­ti­ple vac­cines con­cur­rent­ly. Un­der that frame­work, in­ves­ti­ga­tors can ex­pect to know the ben­e­fits and risks with­in 3 to 6 months of the can­di­date en­ter­ing the tri­al, the out­line read.

Whether that time­line is re­al­is­tic will be up for de­bate, as crit­ics have cast doubt on Sanofi and GSK’s promise to make a vac­cine avail­able in a year. Con­sid­er­ing that some side ef­fects take 6 to 12 months to de­vel­op, an ap­proval may not come for two years — and even that would be con­sid­ered in­cred­i­bly fast, an ex­pert con­sult­ed by SVB Leerink said.

The blue­print sug­gest­ed a steer­ing com­mit­tee and a da­ta mon­i­tor­ing com­mit­tee to over­see the study, gov­ern­ing the adap­tive as­pects of the study. Op­tum de­clined to make Wit­ty avail­able for an in­ter­view.

Em­ma Walm­s­ley GSK

Em­ma Walm­s­ley, Wit­ty’s suc­ces­sor at GSK, has said that the world’s go­ing to need more than one vac­cine to meet the enor­mous de­mand.

Echo­ing that point, the WHO has brought to­geth­er a group of ex­perts to work on vac­cine de­vel­op­ment. In a pub­lic state­ment, the group pledged to “con­tin­ue ef­forts to strength­en the un­prece­dent­ed world­wide col­lab­o­ra­tion, co­op­er­a­tion and shar­ing of da­ta al­ready un­der­way.” Tal Zaks of Mod­er­na, Xue­feng Yu of CanSi­no Bi­o­log­ics, Kate Brod­er­ick of In­ovio — rep­re­sent­ing the first three groups to bring a vac­cine in­to hu­man test­ing — were in the group, which al­so fea­tured Sanofi’s John Shiv­er and of­fi­cials from the FDA and NIH.

Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen spot­lights a pair of painful pipeline set­backs as ad­u­canum­ab show­down looms at the FDA

Biogen has flagged a pair of setbacks in the pipeline, spotlighting the final failure for a one-time top MS prospect while scrapping a gene therapy for SMA after the IND was put on hold due to toxicity.

Both failures will raise the stakes even higher on aducanumab, the Alzheimer’s drug that Biogen is betting the ranch on, determined to pursue an FDA OK despite significant skepticism they can make it with mixed results and a reliance on post hoc data mining. And the failures are being reported as Biogen was forced to cut its profit forecast for 2020 as a generic rival started to erode their big franchise drug.

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A new chap­ter in the de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal tri­al ap­proach

Despite the promised decentralized trial revolution, we haven’t yet moved the needle in a significant way, although we are seeing far bolder commitments to this as we continue to experience the pandemic restrictions for some time to come. The vision of grandeur is one thing, but operationalizing and execution are another and recognising that change, particularly mid-flight on studies, is worthy of thorough evaluation and consideration in order to achieve success. Here we will discuss one of the critical building blocks of a Decentralized and Remote Trial strategy: TeleConsent; more than paper under glass, it is a paradigm change and key digital enabler.

John Maraganore, Alnylam CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

With lumasir­an on the FDA's doorstep, Al­ny­lam reads out new PhI­II da­ta in PH1

Just over a month away from its December PDUFA date, Alnylam flaunted new data from two Phase III studies to back lumasiran in primary hyperoxaluria type 1 (PH1), a rare liver condition.

The Cambridge, MA-based biotech snagged a priority review for the candidate back in June, and got positive feedback from the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use just last week. Lumasiran uses RNA interference (RNAi) to silence the gene for glycolate oxidase, an enzyme used in the production of oxalate.

Stephen Hoge, Moderna president (Moderna)

On morn­ing of FDA Covid-19 ad­comm, Mod­er­na com­pletes PhI­II en­roll­ment, putting them neck-and-neck with Pfiz­er

Weeks away from a potential EUA application, Moderna announced they have completed enrollment in their 30,000-person Phase III Covid-19 vaccine trial, with over a third of volunteers non-white and a quarter over the age of 65.

The announcement caps what has been the most closely-watched recruitment race in the history of drug development, as Pfizer and Moderna rushed to get enough volunteers to prove whether or not experimental vaccines could actually protect people from contracting Covid-19. Pfizer reached that mark on Sept. 15. Moderna said around the same time that they would slow down enrollment to ensure they enrolled enough participants from minority and at-risk groups.

Pfiz­er scoops up an an­tibi­ot­ic in rare M&A deal, bag­ging a vir­tu­al start­up op­er­at­ing on a shoe­string bud­get

Pfizer is stepping up with a rare antibiotics buyout deal today, grabbing Palo Alto, CA-based Arixa Pharmaceuticals in a bid to add a new oral version of avibactam, a beta lactamase inhibitor — or BLI — approved back in 2015 as part of the IV treatment Avycaz.

The Arixa acquisition follows some encouraging Phase I responses demonstrating that 60% to 80% of the oral drug is absorbed into the bloodstream. Only 7% of the IV version is absorbed orally, far below the 30% threshold Arixa has pointed to as a therapeutic threshold. The buyout gives Pfizer’s hospital group a line on a new oral combo with antibiotics like ceftibuten to go after drug-resistant cases of urinary tract infections and other ailments.

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News brief­ing: UK biotech 4D phar­ma heads for Nas­daq via SPAC; Dr. Red­dy's shuts down man­u­fac­tur­ing af­ter cy­ber­at­tack

Another pharma company is intending to use a SPAC to join the Nasdaq.

4D pharma, a UK-based biotech, is reverse-merging with a blank check company in a deal worth up to $37.6 million. The move will give 4D pharma a new Nasdaq ticker, which will be $LBPS, using the American Depositary Share program.

As a result of the move, 4D pharma will gain $14.6 million in cash held by the blank check company, dubbed Longevity. The merger is expected to be completed in early 2021, after which shares will be immediately tradeable.

Can B cells break the bound­aries of cell ther­a­py? Long­wood start­up has $52M to prove a new en­gi­neer­ing tech

Back in December 2017, as the cell therapy world was still basking in the virtually back-to-back approvals of two pioneering CAR-Ts, researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute reported a scientific first in a different corner of the field: engineer B cells to treat disease.

The team, led by David Rawlings and Richard James, eventually worked with Longwood Fund to start a biotech around those findings. And now Atlas Venture and RA Capital Management are coming on board to lead a $52 million launch round, joined by Alta Partners, for Be Biopharma.

Jason Kelly, Gingko Bioworks CEO (Mike Blake/Reuters via Adobe)

Ex­clu­sive: Eye­ing big Covid-19 test­ing ex­pan­sion, Gink­go rolls out 50M rapid anti­gen di­ag­nos­tics

In what they hope will be a key part of an extensive effort to boost Covid-19 testing in the US, Ginkgo Bioworks is acquiring and distributing 50 million rapid antigen tests that can potentially be used for virus surveillance in schools and communities and for quick, on the ground diagnoses.

The tests, developed by SD Biosensor, are in line with proposals from the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard epidemiologists, among others, to blanket the country with fast, low-cost tests. Although not yet authorized in the US, they are a key part of testing efforts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who announced plans last month to distribute 120 million of them in low and middle income countries. Roche has commercialized the diagnostic in Europe.

Bo Cumbo, AavantiBio CEO (file photo)

Bo Cum­bo jumps from the top com­mer­cial post at Sarep­ta to the helm of a gene ther­a­py start­up with some in­flu­en­tial back­ers, big plans and $107M

After a 7-year stretch building the commercial team at Sarepta, longtime drug salesman Bo Cumbo is jumping to the entrepreneurial side of the business, taking the helm of a startup that’s got several deep-pocket investors. And he’s not just bringing his experience in selling drugs.

He tells me that when he told Sarepta CEO Doug Ingram about it, his boss got excited about the venture and opted to jump in with a $15 million investment from Sarepta to add to the launch money, alongside 3 of the busiest investors in biotech.

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