Coronavirus news roundup – 20/03/2020

We round up the latest news on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting pharma, biotech and healthcare.

  • Big European launches of drugs for cancer, HIV, and sickle cell disease could be affected by coronavirus, according to a new analysis from Jefferies. Novo Nordisk’s Rybelsus type 2 diabetes pill and AstraZeneca’s Calquence for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia are two of the drugs that could have their launches disrupted.
  • Shares in BioNTech have surged after it signed a deal with Pfizer to jointly develop a coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer said it is to co-develop a potential mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine with the German biotech, and said the jab is expected to enter clinical testing by the end of next month.
  • Researchers at Imperial College London say that up to 250,000 people could die in the UK as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, unless the government ramps up measures to control the spread of virus. 
  • Two UK firms have announced plans to begin trials of therapies to tackle the outbreak. Synairgen, based in Southampton, said it had clearance from the UK drug regulator the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and ethical clearance from the Health Research Authority (HRA) to begin a trial of an inhaled therapy, SNG001. And Hemel Hempstead-based EUSA Pharma said it had begun a trial of siltuximab, an antibody that also aims to tackle the severe respiratory symptoms that can occur.
  • The FDA has responded to concerns about the impact on clinical trials of the novel coronavirus with guidance on how to modify trial designs to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Trials are already being disrupted by the outbreak, with quarantine measures, site closures, travel limitations and interruptions to supply chains possibly interfering with research efforts.
  • Roche is to begin a phase 3 trial of its Actemra/RoActemra as a treatment for patients hospitalised with severe COVID-19 pneumonia, following independent research in China suggesting it may help relieve symptoms. Actemra (tocilizumab) works by targeting inhibiting the interleukin-6 (IL-6) receptor and is already used in certain diseases where the immune system becomes over-stimulated and begins to attack the patient’s own body.
  • US biotech Moderna announced the first patient had been tested with its potential coronavirus vaccine. In this case Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine instructs the body to make antibodies against a stabilised form of the Spike (S) protein found on the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • Canadian biotech AbCellera has joined forces with Eli Lilly to co-develop antibody products to prevent and treat COVID-19. AbCellera has a rapid pandemic response platform developed under the US government’s Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) Program. The deal will combine this with Lilly’s ability to develop, manufacture and distribute large quantities of therapeutic antibodies against the coronavirus.
  • Roche’s CEO Severin Schwan has said that widespread testing for the coronavirus is still unfeasible, speaking at a press briefing on the outbreak from industry leaders. Schwan said that Roche and competitor firms are ramping up capacity to produce the tests, but that they cannot keep pace with orders.
  • At the same briefing, Eli Lilly’s CEO warned against the hoarding of medicines by individual states and countries in the coronavirus crisis, saying that it will hamper the effort to fight the virus. David Ricks, who is also chair of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said that the industry will do all it can to speed up the development of safe and effective vaccines.
  • President Donald Trump thrust a decades old malaria drug called chloroquine into the forefront of efforts to treat people with COVID-19 yesterday, saying the US would make it available “almost immediately”, even though it hasn’t been fully tested.
  • Several more pharma and medical conferences have been cancelled or postponed due to the outbreak, with many choosing to go ahead as digital-only events. For full updates on how coronavirus is affecting industry events, keep an eye on pharmaphorum’s coronavirus conference monitor.