GSK bets $250M on Vir’s antibody approach to treating coronavirus

A vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the COVID-19 illness that has killed nearly 63,000 worldwide through Sunday, is the ultimate defense.

But the development time for a vaccine, even one hastened through testing, will likely be measured in years, and could take longer to distribute to enough people to have a benefit. So public health experts are eager for drugs that could treat people already sickened by the virus.

Aside from small molecule antivirals like Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir and the controversial antimalarial hydroxychloroquine, the most promising approach appears to be neutralizing antibodies.

The “convalescent serum” approach, in which antibodies from people who have recovered are infused into current patients, is already being tested in hospitals, but will not be an easily scalable approach. Large numbers of donors are needed, and manufacturing can be a challenge.

Enter synthetic antibodies. Most often used to fight cancer and auto-immune diseases, these have also been employed to fight Ebola virus in Africa and another condition called respiratory syncytial virus, and now are emerging as a promising approach to combat COVID-19.

Four major development programs have been made public. Regeneron Pharmaceutical is quickly advancing a program on its own, while Eli Lilly has partnered with private company AbCellera and Amgen did the same with biotech Adaptive Biotechnologies.

“Antibody drug approaches to COVID19 have perhaps the best chance of a near term, meaningful therapeutic that’ll be ready before fall,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted Monday.

“We should have a large, coordinated national strategy to develop these products; akin to Mercury rocket project. This new bet by GSK bodes well,” he added.

GSK bought $250 million worth of shares at $37.73 apiece, a 10% premium to the closing price on March 27. Shares in Vir rose as much as 32% to $38.29 in morning trading Monday.

The initial focus will be on two antibody candidates identified so far, VIR-7831 and VIR-7832, which have shown affinity for a distinctive feature of SARS-CoV-2 called the “spike protein.”

With regulatory sign-off, those two projects could proceed directly into a Phase 2 trial in three to five months, according to the companies, which would mark a notable acceleration of the standard clinical development process. Regeneron, as well as Lilly and AbCellera, also hope to soon begin human testing of their respective antibodies.

Longer term, the two companies plan on combining technologies. On Vir’s side, that includes target identification for additional treatments or vaccines, and on GSK’s side that includes vaccine development and functional genomics.

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