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.

The tests can im­me­di­ate­ly be used for sur­veil­lance, where schools, of­fices or com­mu­ni­ties can mon­i­tor for out­breaks, as some places now do with waste­water test­ing and oth­er tech­nolo­gies. With an EUA, it could al­so be used to give in­di­vid­ual yes/no an­swers.

Gink­go’s new Covid-19 au­to­mat­ed, Il­lu­mi­na-equipped test­ing fa­cil­i­ty in Boston, set to open next month

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

Gink­go CEO Ja­son Kel­ly said he en­vi­sioned de­ploy­ing the tests in com­mu­ni­ties in the same way some north­east col­leges used once or twice-a-week test­ing to safe­ly re­open in the fall. He not­ed the US doesn’t even have the ca­pac­i­ty now to test a frac­tion of schools.

“If you look, in the US, it’s 20 mil­lion stu­dents and staff as­so­ci­at­ed with col­leges. So if you were test­ing them twice a week, it’d be about 5 mil­lion a day, and our na­tion­al ca­pac­i­ty for test­ing right now is a mil­lion tests a day,” Kel­ly told End­points News. “So if you’re go­ing to ac­tu­al­ly do some­thing like what was done for a small num­ber of col­leges na­tion­wide, you’ve got­ta bring on­line stuff like this.”

A decade-old up­start out of MIT, Gink­go grew to uni­corn sta­tus at the tail end of 2019 off the ro­bot­ic fac­to­ries it built to scale syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy, sup­port­ing ap­pli­ca­tions on every­thing from fer­til­iz­er and per­fumes to nov­el an­tibi­otics and en­gi­neered mi­crobes.

Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, though, the com­pa­ny has con­cen­trat­ed its ef­forts on di­ag­nos­tics. Most promi­nent­ly, in the spring, they un­veiled plans to use their ar­ray of Il­lu­mi­na se­quencers as a new kind of di­ag­nos­tic. With back­ing from the NIH’s RADx ini­tia­tive, Gink­go has built a new au­to­mat­ed fac­to­ry ded­i­cat­ed to that pur­pose in Boston. Once on­line next month, it should be able to process about 100,000 tests per day, or a full 10% in­crease in the na­tion’s cur­rent test­ing ca­pac­i­ty.

Ide­al­ly, Kel­ly said, they’d like to even­tu­al­ly use it for front-end pool test­ing, where a school or an of­fice mix­es sam­ples from, say, 10 dif­fer­ent peo­ple and tests them all to­geth­er in an ef­fort to get a broad sense of whether there’s an out­break.

“What you’re re­al­ly see­ing now is peo­ple put like 6 swabs in a tube and ship it to the lab,” Kel­ly said, laugh­ing. “But that’s a start. In a per­fect world they would al­so fig­ure out how to get the swabs out of there and just send a sam­ple to the lab that didn’t have swabs. But it’s start­ing to hap­pen.”

In the mean­time, they’re push­ing for­ward with the anti­gen plan. The tests they are now rolling out hold the same draw­backs that have swirled around anti­gen tests for months: the po­ten­tial for too many false pos­i­tives and too many false neg­a­tives. (Kel­ly, echo­ing ex­perts like Har­vard epi­demi­ol­o­gist Michael Mi­na, thinks the neg­a­tives aren’t much of a con­cern, as we’re al­ready miss­ing every­one we don’t test, though he thinks the pos­i­tives are worth watch­ing. “If you’re quar­an­ti­ning 5% of your work­force every day, it’s not go­ing to work,” he said.)

Gink­go al­so re­viewed the pa­per tests that E25Bio de­vel­ops and that Mi­na has been push­ing as a way to test near­ly every Amer­i­can every day. They de­cid­ed, though, that those weren’t yet read to scale — one of the key ad­van­tages of the SD Biosen­sor tech. Un­like some of the anti­gen tests from BD or Quidel, the SD Biosen­sor tests re­quire a much sim­pler de­vice to read. That could al­low for much broad­er man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion, sim­i­lar to the Ab­bott tests re­cent­ly pur­chased en masse by the gov­ern­ment.

The read­er “ba­si­cal­ly cre­ates a bot­tle­neck in how many tests you can ac­tu­al­ly do per day,” Kel­ly said. “If you can do it with­out a read­er then your bot­tle­neck is pret­ty much how many you can man­u­fac­ture.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Jay Bradner (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

Div­ing deep­er in­to in­her­it­ed reti­nal dis­or­ders, No­var­tis gob­bles up an­oth­er bite-sized op­to­ge­net­ics biotech

Right about a year ago, a Novartis team led by Jay Bradner and Cynthia Grosskreutz at NIBR swooped in to scoop up a Cambridge, MA-based opthalmology gene therapy company called Vedere. Their focus was on a specific market niche: inherited retinal dystrophies that include a wide range of genetic retinal disorders marked by the loss of photoreceptor cells and progressive vision loss.

But that was just the first deal that whet their appetite.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J boost­er shot da­ta show promise; CD­C's ACIP meet­ing this week to dis­cuss Pfiz­er boost­ers

J&J revealed a summary of new Covid-19 vaccine data today, including new results showing booster shots may help with protection.

A Phase III study (ENSEMBLE 2) looked at booster shots at two different points in time: a second shot 56 days after the first shot, or a second shot six months after the first. The eight-week shot showed increased protection against symptomatic Covid-19, with the following levels of protection:

President Biden and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

Chaot­ic ad­comm sees Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech boost­ers re­ject­ed for gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, but rec­om­mend­ed for old­er and high-risk pop­u­la­tions

With just days before President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 booster rollout is set to go into effect, an FDA advisory committee appeared on the verge of not recommending boosters for anyone in the US before a last-minute change of wording laid the groundwork for older adults to have access to a third dose.

The FDA’s adcomm on Vaccines and Related Biological Products (VRBPAC) roundly rejected Pfizer/BioNTech booster shots for all individuals older than 16 by a 16-2 vote Friday afternoon. Soon after, however, the agency posed committee members a new question limiting booster use to the 65-and-older population and individuals at high risk of disease due to occupational exposure or comorbidities.

When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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