As coronavirus disease sweeps the globe, a number of European healthcare organizations are stepping up to meet challenges in producing vaccines and diagnostics.
The coronavirus disease, or Covid-19, has recently hit 100,000 cases worldwide. As a result, the novel virus behind it — SARS-CoV-2 — has caused major concern for healthcare systems in Europe and elsewhere. As the virus is so new, there is currently a lack of approved treatments or vaccines to fight its spread.
Public organizations and biotech companies across Europe have stepped up to address this crisis. For example, the European Commission has been funding projects to develop vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics via grants from Horizon 2020 and the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which announced up to €45M in public grants to fund studies of the condition last week. The IMI expects pharma companies to pitch in more money to make a total investment of €90M.
Pierre Meulien, Executive Director of the IMI, told me that the IMI’s response to this outbreak of Covid-19 was honed by lessons learned from previous outbreaks, particularly of the viral disease Ebola in 2014.
“Of particular importance was the rapid mobilization of the pharma industry by committing essential resources,” he told me.
Also following this important lesson are the UK charity The Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Mastercard, who today launched a €110M ($125M) initiative to boost public-private collaboration and accelerate Covid-19 treatments to the market.
The biotech industry in Europe is forming a key part of the fight against Covid-19, in terms of developing vaccines, therapeutic drugs, diagnostics, and research. So read on for a roundup of the biggest Covid-19 projects going on in European biotech!
The coronavirus vaccine race
All players in the scramble to develop Covid-19 vaccines are at the preclinical stage. It’s hard to say who is winning the race for a vaccine, but research supported by big pharma is getting the most attention.
One advanced program is a collaboration between the Oslo-based public-private funder Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) and the German biotech CureVac to develop an mRNA vaccine for Covid-19. Like the US mRNA giant Moderna, CureVac aims to prove that mRNA vaccines will be faster to develop and manufacture than traditional biologic vaccines, and aims to have a candidate in phase I by early this summer.
As well as CureVac, the German firm BioNTech — which has a number of mRNA vaccines in development for cancer and flu — is the subject of a potential partnership with Pfizer to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
There are also many smaller efforts underway. Yesterday, €2.7M of Horizon 2020 grant money went to a Danish public-private collaboration developing a vaccine for Covid-19, including the biotech companies ExpreS2ion Biotechnologies and AdaptVac. The consortium aims to begin a phase I/IIa clinical trial for a vaccine within 12 months.
The Israeli oncology biotech Vaxil Bio is also in the game, having reported proteins that could also serve as a vaccine for Covid-19. There are also programs run by the Italian company Takis Biotech in collaboration with the US manufacturer Applied DNA Sciences, scientists at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the Italian biotech Advent, and a research group at Imperial College London, which aims to launch clinical trials in early summer if it gets funding.
European players in the vaccine race. Data from the World Health Organization
Several European companies are developing methods to assist others in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. One example is the Danish university spinout Immunitrack. At the beginning of March, this firm released a report of some of the most promising viral structures of the coronavirus strain that could result in a vaccine.
The UK Native Antigen Company also chipped into the vaccine field by launching coronavirus antigens for research purposes, which could speed up efforts to develop vaccines and diagnostic tests.
The Swiss firm Roquette has a more indirect approach, developing molecules called cyclodextrins could make vaccines more stable against Covid-19, and also make antiviral drugs easier to produce.
While the earliest vaccines could hit phase I by summer, regulatory bodies will likely require one to two years of human testing to ensure that the vaccine is safe and effective. Even after getting approval, companies need to set up commercial-scale manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine, which takes time. All in all, the world might see an approved Covid-19 vaccine available by mid-2021.
Antiviral drugs, old and new
A number of companies expect to develop new antiviral drugs or adapt current experimental drugs to tackle the new virus. Antiviral drugs are tricky to develop because, unlike bacteria, viruses hide in our own cells. This means that drugs to stop the viruses are more likely to affect our own cells and cause side effects, such as the flu antiviral Tamiflu, which can cause nausea and even hallucinations in some patients.
The Parisian AI drug discovery company Iktos recently launched a collaboration with the US synthetic chemistry company SRI International. The aim of the collaboration is to develop new antiviral drugs to treat Covid-19, amongst other types of viruses.
The Austrian biotech Apeiron launched a pilot phase II clinical trial in late February of a drug candidate for the treatment of Covid-19. The protein drug has already completed phase I and II trials for the treatment of acute lung injury, and is designed to work by mimicking a protein that the coronavirus binds to when invading lung tissue.
There are also many efforts to repurpose approved antiviral drugs to treat Covid-19. This has the advantage that the safety of the drug is already known, and can hit the market faster.
Scientists based at institutions in Goettingen and Berlin, Germany, are currently investigating the potential of camostat mesilate — a drug that is approved in Japan for the treatment of pancreatic inflammation — in protecting against the coronavirus by blocking a vital protein to the virus’s function.
Another effort to repurpose antiviral drugs took place at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Authors of a study published in the journal International Journal of Infectious Diseases identified 31 approved antiviral drugs that have the potential to treat or prevent Covid-19, such as lopinavir and ritonavir.
While antiviral investigations are at an early stage in Europe, efforts are already ongoing to quickly repurpose approved antivirals in China, with phase III trials underway for treatments such as a lopinavir-ritonavir combination therapy and remdesivir.
Knowing your enemy with diagnostics
While lots of focus is on vaccines and drugs, the importance of diagnostics for Covid-19 can’t be overlooked. The US found this out the hard way when official tests for the disease turned out to contain faulty reagents, questioning the accuracy of the US disease case figures.
According to Meulien, there is a strong push for diagnostic tests that can quickly identify Covid-19 coronavirus cases on-site.
“The priority is to be able to stratify patients for clinical trials of new or repurposed drugs, and to be able to rapidly identify people with the virus, ideally through a point of care diagnostic test, so that e.g. doctors will be able to diagnose people on the spot,” Meulien told me.
“This way, people who have the virus can be isolated and treated immediately, but people who don’t have it can carry on with their daily lives.”
In mid-February, the French diagnostics company Novacyt launched what it believes to be the first EMA-approved test to clinically detect the virus responsible for Covid-19. This launch followed the launch of the same test for research-only uses in late January. Now, the company is working to roll out the test in more territories.
Last week, the UK biotech Mologic received a €1.1M grant from the UK government and The Wellcome Trust to fund the development of a handheld diagnostic device that detects Covid-19 in 10 minutes without the need for a lab or electricity. The company is also working to manufacture the device in Africa to manage potential outbreaks on that continent.
Other companies developing tests for Covid include Qiagen, which distributed diagnostic tests for clinical evaluation in late February. Close behind is the Finnish company Mobidiag, which in early-February began the development of a 30-minute Covid-19 clinical test in collaboration with the Chinese firm Autobio Diagnostics.
In addition to diagnostics, European companies are also wading in to develop tests that help researchers to study the coronavirus.
The Austrian next-generation sequencing company Ares Genetics joined the fight in late January, when it signed a deal with Chinese company BGI Group to track the virus, and aid efforts to control its spread in Europe.
The German company Genekam also launched one of the first tests for the coronavirus behind Covid-19 in early February, which was for research purposes only.
Even with the most accurate and fast diagnostic tests, containment measures are also important. According to a study published in The Lancet yesterday, China’s policies of quarantine and social distancing can help to contain the epidemic. However, it’s not certain whether every country will be able or willing to impose quarantine rules as strict as China’s.
Infectious disease — a difficult legacy
Despite the abundant public awareness of Covid-19, some big life sciences companies show little interest in fighting the virus. This is because infectious diseases treatments are generally less lucrative for the industry than conditions such as cancer. For example, GSK abandoned the development of vaccines for Ebola last year as the outbreak slowed, and minimized financial returns for the big pharma.
As seen from the number of partnerships taking place, European companies are operating as part of a global whole, including key bodies in the US, China, and other parts of the world. This collaboration could let companies reduce the risks and incentivize them to go ahead with treatment programs in the face of a potentially short-lived coronavirus outbreak.
It will be very interesting to see which developers and technologies end up becoming dominant in the shifting environment of healthcare as Covid-19 progresses. This could be a year where emerging technologies such as mRNA and rapid diagnostics prove their worth, or sink in the attempt.