EU backs Big Pharma consortium to speed COVID-19 R&D

A slate of Big Pharma companies led by Johnson & Johnson and Takeda has allied with research centers to advance COVID-19 drugs. The EU-backed, 37-member initiative is seeking to reposition existing drugs and develop novel small molecules and virus-neutralizing antibodies.

Anti-COVID-19 collaborations involving biopharma companies and research centers proliferated in the early days of the pandemic. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped set up the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator to evaluate new and repurposed drugs and biologics, while the EU kicked off initiatives including Monoclonal Antibodies against 2019-New Coronavirus and Swift COronavirus therapeutics REsponse.

Despite the existence of those initiatives and scores of drug repurposing and development programs at biopharma companies, the Innovative Medicines Initiative has identified the need for a new consortium.

The result is Corona Accelerated R&D in Europe (CARE), an initiative that starts with €77.7 million ($92.5 million). The EU and 11 members of trade group the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations are among the organizations to provide funding.

CARE will use the money to work toward three goals. The consortium will screen libraries to identify existing compounds that can be repurposed for use against COVID-19, perform in silico screening to find new small molecules against SARS-CoV-2 and “future coronavirus targets,” and apply approaches such as fully human phage and yeast display to the discovery of virus-neutralizing antibodies.

Some of the initiatives have been underway since February. CARE is integrating the initiatives and will also try to ensure the work is complementary to other existing programs. The Gates Foundation has signed up to coordinate work of CARE and the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator to prevent the duplication of activities.

Other participants in CARE also have defined tasks. J&J’s Janssen is leading the project with support from Takeda. Boehringer is running a work stream focused on the development of virus-neutralizing antibodies. Bayer is screening compound libraries against a COVID-19 protease target. AbbVie, Merck KGaA, Novartis and Pfizer are also involved. 

CARE will also support research to better understand the virus. The initiative aims to shed light on the interaction between the infection stages of SARS-CoV-2 and human immune response as well as to identify disease markers that may inform drug development and clinical trial design.

With multiple drugs and vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 already in late-phase development, the world could soon have products that are effective at treating and preventing COVID-19. Even so, CARE sees a need for ongoing R&D and plans to operate for the next five years.