'Vaccines alone are insufficient': Merck, Aligos work with academic experts to find Covid antivirals as part of $65M NIH grant
Merck is throwing its weight behind a new consortium of academic, nonprofit and biotech scientists to discover oral antivirals that can fight Covid-19 — and pandemic viruses of the future.
The NIH and the NIAID will provide $65 million over three years to fund the The Metropolitan AntiViral Drug Accelerator, or MAVDA, as it works to find and test small molecule drugs to target coronaviruses. With an emphasis on SARS-CoV-2 and one or more select RNA viruses with pandemic potential, the goal is to make oral treatments that can be given in an outpatient setting.
MAVDA appears to be part of an NIH campaign to create antiviral drug discovery centers, whose main goals are to do the preclinical discovery work for Covid-19 drugs and other viruses with high pandemic potential. But here, the partners will look to take it a step further by having the biopharma partners rapidly translate the findings.
Virologists and academic drug finders at Rockefeller University, Columbia University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, as well as Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) and Rutgers University in New Jersey will join hands with drug developers at Merck, Aligos Therapeutics and the nonprofit Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute for the initiative.
David Perlin, the CSO and senior vice president of the CDI, is co-leading the program with Rockefeller University virologist and Nobel laureate Charles Rice.
“This public-private partnership is how science can prepare for the next phase of SARS-CoV-2 — as well as other current and new viral threats,” Perlin said in a statement. “Vaccines were a terrific breakthrough to help stem COVID-19 after the initial spread — but as we have learned with COVID-19 and other pandemic diseases, vaccines alone are insufficient. We need effective drugs that can be used early and distributed widely to diverse populations around the world.”
Other big names — covering diverse fields like virology, structural biology, drug discovery, medicinal chemistry and drug screening — include Columbia’s David Ho, Stephen Goff, Jingyue Ju and Lawrence Shapiro; Rockefeller’s Tom Tuschl and Fraser Glickman; MSK’s Dinshaw Patel; CDI’s James Balkovec and Veronique Dartois; and Rutgers’ Joel Freundlich.
“We need to think differently,” Rice added. “Bringing all this experience and expertise into the same program, and having everyone ‘pull’ in the same direction, can produce some great results.”
Having worked together on other projects, the scientists have put together a plan to go five different directions. Six pharma-style “cores” will complement each other as they work on those projects.
With SARS-CoV-2, MAVDA wants to look at eight molecular features in the virus which have critical roles in viral replication, maturation and immune-system evasion. Chief among them is 3CLpro, which is the virus’ main protease for replication.
Aligos will be contributing its 3CLpro inhibitor as one of the candidates being tested.