The race to de­vel­op Covid-19 drugs and vac­cines is on — here’s what’s hap­pen­ing in the UK

Weeks away from the re­sults of on­go­ing US and Chi­na tri­als test­ing its ex­per­i­men­tal an­tivi­ral remde­sivir, Gilead is go­ing to tri­al the failed Ebo­la drug in a small group of coro­n­avirus pa­tients in Eng­land and Scot­land. The Unit­ed King­dom is al­so home to a range of oth­er ther­a­peu­tic ef­forts, as the pan­dem­ic rages on across the globe.

On Tues­day, Southamp­ton, UK-based start­up Synair­gen kicked off a mid-stage place­bo-con­trolled study test­ing its ex­per­i­men­tal drug, SNG001 — an in­haled for­mu­la­tion of in­ter­fer­on-be­ta-1a — that has pre­vi­ous­ly shown to be safe and ef­fec­tive in im­prov­ing lung func­tion in asth­ma pa­tients with a res­pi­ra­to­ry vi­ral in­fec­tion in a pair of Phase II tri­als.

In­ter­fer­ons, a fam­i­ly of nat­u­ral­ly oc­cur­ring pro­teins se­cret­ed by the im­mune sys­tem, typ­i­cal­ly boost the body’s im­mune re­sponse to un­in­vit­ed guests such as virus­es, bac­te­ria and can­cer.

Richard Mars­den Synair­gen

“When we’ve col­lect­ed cells from pa­tients with COPD and asth­ma and old­er peo­ple…we find that their lung cells don’t re­spond very well to virus­es,” CEO Richard Mars­den said in an in­ter­view. “We have al­so along the way al­ways rec­og­nized that with an emerg­ing virus, the drug could be used.”

As Covid-19 start­ed to gath­er steam in Chi­na, Synair­gen tried to get things start­ed, but to no avail. Italy was the next plan. “We had some re­al­ly good in­ter­ac­tion there,” said Mars­den. “But they went from, you know, just busy to very busy to ex­treme­ly busy to un­able-to-com­mu­ni­cate busy.”

Even­tu­al­ly, they de­cid­ed their home ground — the UK, where they have an on­go­ing COPD tri­al — would be the best place to kick off a Covid-19 study. Ini­tial­ly, the pi­lot phase of the tri­al will have 100 pa­tients (50 will get a place­bo, and 50 will get SNG001). If all goes well, a piv­otal study will be con­duct­ed.

This ap­proach is one of many, as com­pa­nies race to de­sign and de­vel­op di­ag­nos­tics, drugs and vac­cines to stem the tide of the pan­dem­ic. “(W)e need high qual­i­ty clin­i­cal re­search to work out what is work­ing, what isn’t work­ing; we be­lieve place­bo-con­trolled tri­als are the way to do that,” Mars­den said.

Last week, the UK gov­ern­ment is­sued a state­ment con­firm­ing that the two decades-old malar­ia drugs: chloro­quine and hy­drox­y­chloro­quine, which have been tout­ed as po­ten­tial treat­ments for pa­tients in­fect­ed with the coro­n­avirus, have not been sanc­tioned for use against the virus in the UK.

Al­though clin­i­cal tri­als are on­go­ing, no con­clu­sions have been reached on the safe­ty and ef­fec­tive­ness of these med­i­cines, not­ed the Med­i­cines and Health­care prod­ucts Reg­u­la­to­ry Agency. In stark con­trast, in the Unit­ed States, the FDA on Sun­day is­sued emer­gency au­tho­riza­tion for the pair of drugs that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has re­peat­ed­ly backed, on the ba­sis of anec­do­tal re­ports.

Mar­tin Lan­dray Ox­ford

In the UK, sci­en­tists at Ox­ford Uni­ver­si­ty are al­so look­ing at re­pur­pos­ing oth­er drugs for use against Covid-19. Last week, re­searchers an­nounced they would be test­ing lopinavir-ri­ton­avir, ap­proved used to treat HIV, and the steroid dex­am­etha­sone, in con­sent­ing adults that have test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19 in NHS hos­pi­tals. The project, in which pa­tients will ei­ther get one of the two drugs, or place­bo in ad­di­tion to stan­dard-of-care treat­ment, has won £10.5 mil­lion in gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

“The stream­lined de­sign of this clin­i­cal tri­al al­lows con­sent­ing pa­tients to be en­rolled in large num­bers eas­i­ly and with­out com­pro­mis­ing pa­tient safe­ty or adding sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the work­load of busy hos­pi­tals and their staff,” said the tri­al’s deputy chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor Mar­tin Lan­dray, who al­so serves as a pro­fes­sor of med­i­cine and epi­demi­ol­o­gy Uni­ver­si­ty of Ox­ford, in a state­ment.

Vac­cines in the works

Ox­ford re­searchers al­so have a vac­cine can­di­date in place.

On Jan­u­ary 10 — long be­fore the coro­n­avirus in­fec­tion was named Covid-19 or as­sumed pan­dem­ic pro­por­tions — a team of Ox­ford re­searchers led by Pro­fes­sors Sarah Gilbert, An­drew Pol­lard, Adri­an Hill and Dr. Sandy Dou­glas had be­gun their search for a vac­cine. On March 18, they honed in on a can­di­date: a chim­panzee ade­n­ovirus vac­cine vec­tor (ChA­dOx1).

Chim­panzee ade­n­ovi­ral vec­tors are well stud­ied, hav­ing been used in vac­cines tar­get­ing over 10 dif­fer­ent dis­eases. The Ox­ford vac­cine con­tains the ge­net­ic se­quence of the sur­face spike pro­tein found on SARS-CoV-2 — the virus be­hind Covid-19 — in­side the ChA­dOx1 con­struct. If the project is suc­cess­ful, vac­ci­na­tion with this prod­uct will pro­duce the sur­face spike pro­tein of the coro­n­avirus, prim­ing the im­mune sys­tem to at­tack the coro­n­avirus if it lat­er in­fects the body.

The re­searchers — who have pre­vi­ous­ly de­vel­oped a vac­cine for MERS that showed promise in ear­ly clin­i­cal tri­al — said last week they would start screen­ing peo­ple for a clin­i­cal tri­al, al­though the vac­cine is still weeks away from be­ing ready for hu­man test­ing. The en­roll­ment goal is to hit 510 vol­un­teers, and work is be­ing done to scale up man­u­fac­tur­ing in haste.

About a two-hour dri­ve away, re­searchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge al­so have a Covid-19 vac­cine in the works.

Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Heeney, head of the lab­o­ra­to­ry of vi­ral zoonotics and chief of spin­off com­pa­ny DIOSyn­Vax, has spear­head­ed re­search, aid­ed by com­put­er mod­el­ing of the virus’ struc­ture.

By putting the ge­net­ics of the virus un­der a mi­cro­scope, the com­pa­ny has iden­ti­fied a key part of the ge­net­ic code that the virus us­es to pro­duce the es­sen­tial part of its coat: the spikes, which is what the vac­cine is en­gi­neered to tar­get.

“A vac­cine strat­e­gy needs to be laser spe­cif­ic, tar­get­ing those do­mains of the virus’ struc­ture that are ab­solute­ly crit­i­cal for dock­ing with a cell, while avoid­ing the parts that could make things worse,” he said in a state­ment. “Our tech­nol­o­gy does just that.”

Pre­clin­i­cal tri­als are yet to be con­duct­ed, but he ex­pects the vac­cine can­di­date could be ready for hu­man tri­als by June. Fund­ing, how­ev­er, is re­quired.

“We need a ‘Big Phar­ma’ part­ner to help us scale up our ac­tiv­i­ties,” he said.

For a look at all End­points News coro­n­avirus sto­ries, check out our spe­cial news chan­nel.

5AM Ven­tures: Fu­el­ing the Next Gen­er­a­tion of In­no­va­tors

By RBC Capital Markets
With Andy Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at 5AM Ventures

Key Points

Prescription Digital Therapeutics, cell therapy technologies, and in silico medicines will be a vital part of future treatment modalities.
Unlocking the potential of the microbiome could be the missing link to better disease diagnosis.
Growing links between academia, industry, and venture capital are spinning out more innovative biotech companies.
Biotech is now seen by investors as a growth space as well as a safe haven, fuelling the recent IPO boom.

Hal Barron, GSK via YouTube

What does $29B buy you in Big Phar­ma? In Glax­o­SmithK­line’s case, a whole lot of un­com­fort­able ques­tions about the pipeline

Talk about your bad timing.

A little over a week ago, GSK R&D chief Hal Barron marked his third anniversary at the research helm by taking a turn at the virtual podium during JP Morgan to make the case that he and his team had built a valuable late-stage pipeline capable of churning out more than 10 blockbusters in the next 5 years.

And then, just days later, one of the cancer drugs he bet big on as a top prospect — bintrafusp, partnered with Merck KGaA — failed its first pivotal test in non-small cell lung cancer.

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Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

End­points poll: Janet Wood­cock takes the (in­ter­im) helm at the FDA. And a large ma­jor­i­ty of our read­ers want her to stay there

It’s official: Janet Woodcock is now the acting chief of the FDA.

And — according to an Endpoints poll — most industry readers would like her to stay there, although a significant minority is strongly opposed.

To recap: Joe Biden is reportedly choosing between Woodcock and former deputy FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as his nominee for the permanent position. Given their respective track records, the decision is set to determine the agency’s lodestar for years to come.

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What’s next for End­points — and how to sup­port our in­de­pen­dent bio­phar­ma news mis­sion

The firehose of biopharma news is gushing these days.

That’s why broader and deeper is the theme for 2021 at Endpoints. You can expect new coverage outside our core R&D focus, with deeper reporting in some key areas. When John Carroll and I launched Endpoints nearly five years ago, we were wading in waist-high waters. Now we’re a team of 25 full-time staffers (and growing) with plans to cover the flood of biopharma news, Endpoints-style.

Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein (AP, Images)

Poll: Should Joshua Sharf­stein or Janet Wood­cock lead the FDA from here?

It’s time for a new FDA commissioner to come on board, a rite of passage for Joe Biden’s administration that should help seal the new president’s rep on seeking out the experts to lead the government over the next 4 years.

As of now, the competition for the top job appears to have narrowed down to 2 people: The longtime CDER chief Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein, the former principal deputy at the FDA under Peggy Hamburg. Both were appointed by Barack Obama.

Eli Lil­ly's an­ti­body cuts risk of Covid-19 by up to 80% among the most vul­ner­a­ble — but will it have a place next to vac­cines?

Eli Lilly says bamlanivimab lowered the risk of contracting symptomatic Covid-19 in a first-of-its-kind trial involving nursing home residents and staff, paving the way for a new option to protect against the virus.

But how big of an impact it might have, and what role it will play, at a time vaccines are being rolled out to the exact population it is targeting still remains unclear.

Among 965 participants in the study — all of whom tested negative for the coronavirus at baseline — the number of symptomatic cases reported in the bamlanivimab arm was 57% lower than that in the placebo arm (odds ratio 0.43, p=0.00021). In addition to that primary endpoint, all secondary endpoints reached statistical significance.

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Fast on Glax­o­SmithK­line's heels, Au­rinia wins OK to steer a sec­ond lu­pus nephri­tis drug straight to the mar­ket

GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta isn’t alone in the small circle of approved lupus nephritis drugs anymore.

Little Aurinia Pharmaceuticals has gotten the green light from the FDA to start marketing its first and only program, voclosporin, under the brand name Lupkynis — something CEO Peter Greenleaf says it’s been ready to do since December.

Regulators went right down to the wire on the decision, keeping the company and the entire salesforce it’s already assembled on its toes.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: BioN­Tech of­fers da­ta show­ing Pfiz­er-part­nered vac­cine pro­tects against vari­ant; No­vavax at­trib­ut­es re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for PhI­II de­lay to OWS

Ugur Sahin and his team at BioNTech have proffered more evidence that their Pfizer-partnered Covid-19 vaccine can protect people from a much-feared variant of SARS-CoV-2.

Colloquially known as the UK variant, the B.1.1.7 lineage triggered alarms because it appeared more transmissible. Among a series of mutations on its spike protein — the key antigen that all frontrunners in the vaccine race targeted — N501Y was of particular concern because it’s located on the receptor-binding site.

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Charlie Fuchs, Roche and Genentech global head of product development for oncology and hematology (Yale Cancer Center)

Yale can­cer spe­cial­ist Char­lie Fuchs tapped as new glob­al de­vel­op­ment chief for Roche/Genen­tech

Roche and their big sub Genentech have just recruited a top cancer specialist at Yale to head up global product development in oncology and hematology.

I just got word that the pharma giant, which leads one of the most active cancer research operations in the world, recruited Charlie Fuchs, director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital. He’ll join the global operation March 1 and will be based in South San Francisco, where Genentech is based.

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