Flagship unwraps new AI biotech that looks to predict variants before they’re here
While Moderna is testing Omicron-specific boosters for this fall, its investor Flagship Pioneering is building a biotech that says it uses AI to predict virus variants prior to outbreaks.
Apriori Bio, derived from the Latin phrase a priori that translates to “from the previous,” emerged from stealth Monday with $50 million. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech was founded in 2020 in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, though Apriori CEO Lovisa Afzelius says the biotech will tackle multiple “ultra-dynamic” viruses outside of SARS-CoV-2, including the flu virus and HIV.
“When we had looked back at numerous years in the past, we saw that every single year there have been outbreaks that could have just as well led to a pandemic,” Afzelius, an AstraZeneca and Pfizer vet, said. “But yet, even though it was predictable, we were so unprepared.”
Apriori’s AI, which the biotech calls Octavia, combines experimental biology with algorithms. The biotech creates libraries of “millions of synthetic variants” of a given virus and then tests how well each synthetic variant binds to antibodies — both therapeutic and post-infection. The biotech feeds this experimental data through its algorithm, which can then tell the scientists how well certain variants bind to antibodies and how likely they are to escape vaccines.
Then, the biotech can “run the engine in reverse,” as Afzelius put it, and design “variant-proof vaccines and antibodies” based on the AI data.
Apriori’s advisory board features a number of ex-government leaders, including former FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn; Wellington Sun, former FDA vaccine official and ex-leader of Moderna’s vaccine strategy; and Andrew Weber, a former assistant US secretary of defense under President Barack Obama.
Afzelius said the biotech was working with both private and public entities throughout the pandemic. When asked if the biotech has any plans to partner with Moderna, which is currently building a number of variant-based vaccines, Afzelius gave a non-answer, reiterating that Apriori would be looking to partner with both private and public groups.
Apriori is not alone in using AI for viruses. BioNTech is collaborating with UK AI startup InstaDeep to use AI for an array of biotech items, including drug discovery, protein engineering, and manufacturing.
“What it is we’re trying to do is move away from being extremely reactive and instead positioning ourselves to be proactive and understand where to go a priori — before a new variant occurs,” Afzelius said. “We’ve been in the back seat throughout this pandemic, and we want to create a new opportunity to be in the driver’s seat instead of being dictated by the virus.”