When we spoke on Tuesday, I made a bold prediction: the Covid-19 outbreak, while serious, will not be as bad as the worst-case predictions would have it.
And I’m happy to report there have been some exciting developments in the search for treatments and vaccines against Covid-19
Last week, I noted that most vaccine research remains rooted in 1950s technology.
Despite mapping the entire human genome back in April 2004, drug firms and scientists still rely on slowly growing viruses inside chicken eggs to create a vaccine.
This takes a lot of time – and a lot of eggs.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has them racing to find a treatment using novel and fascinating science.
With that in mind, today I want to take a closer look at some of the promising 21st Century research pushing the boundaries of this field…
A New Age of Vaccines
Let’s start with one of my favorite biotech giants, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. (REGN). The New York-based biotech has developed a breed of mice that have been genetically modified to have human-like immune systems.
When these mice are exposed to human diseases, they produce antibodies very similar to those a human would. And they do it fast.
Researchers then extract and purify these antibodies, and inject them into humans. Once in your bloodstream, the antibodies protect you until your body has time to create your own antibodies.
This cutting-edge approach has the potential to produce both a treatment for Covid-19, as well as a preventative medicine – a short-lived vaccine if you will. Human trials are set to begin this summer.
The firm is working against another potentially dangerous disease health officials have identified as a potential pandemic threat. Regeneron has already proven this approach works against Ebola.
Regeneron’s researchers are not the only ones using a similar approach to Covid-19.
Consider that a team of scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, in The Netherlands recently announced that they have an antibody that can block Covid-19 from infecting cells in the first place.
In a stroke of luck, the Dutch team had been researching this antibody already while researching other diseases. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, they quickly tested what they had against the new virus and had positive results.
However, it will be some time before this antibody can be used widely. Antibody therapy is fraught with risks and requires extensive testing to make sure it doesn’t make the human body attack itself as well as the targeted disease.
The Dutch researchers are testing it right now, and are in talks to begin manufacturing their drug. By preventing Covid-19 infection in the first place, this antibody could be used as a short-lived “vaccine” for healthcare workers and other high-risk individuals.
Vir Biotechnology Inc. (VIR) is also using a similar tack to the Erasmus team and Regeneron, manufacturing antibodies to fight off Covid-19.
Vir is partnering with other biotech companies to develop a treatment for COVID-19. The company entered into an agreement with China-based WuXi Biologics in its fight against the disease.
Empowering the Body
For its part, the Japanese drug company Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. (TAK) is taking a somewhat different approach. Instead of manufacturing antibodies in mice or huge vats of cell lines, Takeda uses new technology to refine one of the oldest approaches in vaccine science.
The company takes blood from people who have recovered from a disease, uses groundbreaking purification and testing technology to extract only the antibodies that are needed and safe, and injects those into new patients.
In this way, the immune response that allowed one person to defeat a disease can save another person’s life as well. Much cruder versions of this approach are known to have worked during the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic as well as during measles outbreaks before vaccines were available.
However, Takeda’s treatment will be limited by the amount of “donors.” One survivor of Covid-19 will be able to provide enough antibodies for about one patient, meaning that the drug will have to be used only for the most severe cases.
Biotech company Moderna Inc. (MRNA) is using a novel approach to create a real vaccine that will have the body itself fight off the Covid-19 virus.
Instead of bothering with lines and lines of chicken eggs to grow a weaker version of the virus, or with extracting dead parts of a virus for injection, Moderna’s scientists are making the human body do the work for them.
Along with the National Institutes of Health, the researchers have developed an injection that tricks the body’s own cells to produce some of the tell-tale proteins that the Covid-19 virus has on its surface.
In animal testing, the body reacts by creating antibodies against these new “intruder” surface proteins. When the animals are later exposed to the actual Covid-19 virus, their immune system is already prepared – and fights the infection off easily.
Another biotech firm, Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. (INO), is using a similar approach. Just like Moderna, Inovio had a head start by already being in the middle of developing a vaccine against Covid-19’s relative, the MERS virus.
Bridging the Gap
There is hope here for real, cutting-edge vaccines. But it will be months before we know whether they are safe and effective and ready for shipment to medical centers.
Fortunately, there is a possible treatment can bridge that gap. It’s gotten a lot of buzz here in the U.S. after President Trump mentioned it at a press conference late last week.
It’s a drug called chloroquine. Discovered back in 1934, it’s been fighting malaria ever since.
New preliminary data and experience on the ground in Asia suggest that chloroquine and an equivalent drug called hydrochloroquine improve treatment and reduce time spent in hospital for those affected by Covid-19.
China and South Korea officially adopted treatment guidelines that specify the use of a drug called chloroquine against Covid-19 infections. This use could be key to protecting healthcare workers, for example.
Add it all up and you can see why I keep saying that technology and the life sciences aren’t just a big source of wealth.
They are on the frontline of the world’s race to keep Covid-19 at bay – and save many thousands of lives.
Cheers and good investing,
Michael A. Robinson