Vir Bio aims to launch Covid-19 antibody studies this summer

The company said it selected two drug candidates for clinical testing as treatments for Covid-19. The lead candidate is able to bind to a region common to the SARS-CoV-2 and 2002-2003 SARS viruses, indicating the viruses may be unable to mutate and become resistant to the drug.

A small biotechnology company working on potential treatments for Covid-19 plans to enter two product candidates into clinical trials this summer.

San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnology said Wednesday that it had identified two monoclonal antibodies that neutralize the virus that causes Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2 and that clinical trials can begin within three to five months. The company said that to save time, it was transferring its lead candidate at risk to China-based WuXi Biologics and also to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Biogen. Vir CEO George Scangos was previously CEO of Biogen, which has suffered a significant outbreak linked to a management meeting that took place in Boston last month.

Shares of Vir were down 5.65% on the Nasdaq following the news.

The company noted that in addition to antibodies, it is developing RNA-interference drugs under partnership with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.

“We are pleased with the rapidity of our progress and excited to move two development candidates into human testing as soon as possible,” Scangos said in a statement. “Stopping this disease will take a combination of prevention and treatment approaches.”

Several other companies are also working on treatments and vaccines against Covid-19. Gilead Sciences has two Phase III trials of the drug remdesivir already underway, alongside Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi’s trial of Kevzara (sarilumab).

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Vir said its lead antibody works by binding to an epitope on SARS-CoV-2 that the virus shares with SARS-CoV-1, the pathogen that caused the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic. That, the company said, indicates the epitope – a region of a targeted antigen – is highly conserved, meaning that it will be harder for the virus to develop mutations rendering the drug ineffective. The antibody has been engineered so that it could potentially provide protection over an extended period of time and to include a “vaccinal mutation” that in animal testing has led to generation of CD8-positive T cells that may provide long-term immunity, allowing it to function as both a therapeutic and a prophylactic.

What will probably be necessary is for drugs that treat SARS-CoV-2 to recognize more than one epitope or use a combination of epitopes, said Dr. Warner Greene, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, in a phone interview. “We do have the example of the first coronavirus outbreak, SARS,” he said. “SARS patients did make antibodies – they were protective, but didn’t last very long, so the natural immunity wasn’t as durable as you’d like.”

In a note to investors Wednesday, Cowen analyst Phil Nadeau wrote that his team was encouraged Vir was making “rapid” progress. He further noted that because Vir is targeting a region conserved between both SARS coronaviruses, the drug could have future use as a vaccine and therapeutic should other coronaviruses emerge.

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