Coronavirus: Where the biotech industry is with treatments

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the biopharmaceutical industry to accelerate work into treatments and vaccines for the fast-spreading virus, according to the head of a biotech trade association.

Earlier this year when the pandemic activities in Asia and Europe made clear that COVID-19 would reach the United States, Biotechnology Innovation Organization CEO James Greenwood wanted to know what research they were working on that would be helpful.

At the time, 45 of BIO’s 1,000 member companies had capabilities and were working on pandemic research, said Greenwood, a former six-time Bucks County congressman. More than 500 people attended a virtual summit in late March where three task forces were created to address testing, treatment and a vaccine.

The rapid development of potential treatments was possible with a combination of collaboration and existing research on related coronaviruses SARS and MERS, which caused other earlier outbreaks.

At least six biopharmaceutical companies have started or are about to start human testing for treatments including potential vaccines. There are 56 studies underway in the U.S. including 14 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to

Here are some of the most promising efforts currently underway, according Greenwood.

– The antiviral drug remdesivir, which was used to treat the Ebola virus, works by tricking the coronavirus into picking the wrong molecule to replicate itself essentially preventing its spread and killing it. Gilead Sciences in Great Britain has six ongoing COVID-19 clinical trials including in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration has also approved the drug for compassionate use in pregnant women and children for the coronavirus, a status given experimental drugs.

– The arthritis drug Kevzara is currently in human clinical trials to test its safety and effectiveness for reducing lung inflammation. The drug is FDA approved for adults with moderate to severe active rheumatoid arthritis.

– San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnology plans to start human testing of a vaccine made with two antibodies found in people who survived the SARS virus. Lab tests suggest the drugs counteract the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Vir is partnering with the Massachusetts-based biotech firm, Biogen, to develop the drugs, which, if successful, also could be available later this year.

– New York-based Regeneron is developing an antibody vaccine to treat, and prevent the coronavirus. It is expected to enter human trials in early summer and, if successful, it could be available for some uses later this year. The antibody treatment would come from mice genetically engineered to have a human-like immune system who are then exposed to the spiked protein on the surface of COVID-19 and generate human antibodies in response for use in a vaccine, Greenwood said. The vaccine provided short-term immunity meaning it would initially require re-vaccination every month or two until a longer term vaccine becomes available, he said. The access to the short-term preventative vaccine would likely be limited initially to health care workers and others at high risk for illness.

– Moderna, a Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech company last month was the first to start human testing of an experimental vaccine injecting it into healthy individuals in Seattle. If the initial tests show the drug is safe for humans — while clinical trials will take a year to complete — the drug could get FDA approval for use in front line health care workers as soon as January, Greenwood said.

– Grifols, a multinational pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturer based in Spain, last month announced it is collaborating with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority and FDA, among others, to collect plasma from recovering COVID-19 patients for vaccine development. The company is also working on a clinical trial with inactive plasma from recovered patients.

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