Exscientia, Gates Foundation put up $35M each to prepare antivirals for next global pandemic threat

With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of ending anytime soon and a White House ready to funnel billions into preparing for future infectious disease outbreaks, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $35 million in Exscientia for just that. 

The equity investment will bankroll five small-molecule assets into the clinic aimed at treating COVID-19, influenza, Nipah and other viruses that could become the next pandemic. The four-year collaboration includes advancing Exscientia's lead program, a COVID-19 antiviral, into the clinic in the second half of next year, said Denise Barrault, the company's director of portfolio management, in an interview with Fierce Biotech.

The COVID-19 antiviral program could lead to another two or three drug hopefuls targeting the virus that has caused a nearly-two-year pandemic, said Andrew Hopkins, Exscientia CEO, in a joint interview with Barrault. 

RELATED: EQRx puts Exscientia's AI on drug discovery duty to develop low-cost cancer drugs

The investment further signals the confidence that the Gates Foundation has already placed in the artificial intelligence-driven drug discovery company. The foundation contributed to a $1.5 million grant in July that will fund Exscientia's work on mPro inhibitors, which target the causative agent behind COVID-19. That partnership is working toward an antiviral that could be effective against variants and potentially other SARS viruses. The foundation also supplied Exscientia with a $4.2 million grant last year for new malaria and tuberculosis treatments and non-hormonal contraceptives. 

Exscientia is putting up its own funds in the latest collaboration. The U.K.-based company will provide $35 million in matching contributions to fund operations and third-party activities. Exscientia has money to spend after hauling in a $225 million series D in April.

RELATED: Bristol Myers' $1.2B discovery pact with Exscientia strikes gold as first drug candidate selected

Exscientia retains the intellectual property and worldwide rights to the program's products. The Gates Foundation could provide more grant funding to bring the candidates to market. Hopkins said the company sees the foundation as a "long-term supporter" of the project across development, manufacturing and commercialization. 

The collaboration is also meant to boost preparedness for future pandemics and work on small-molecule treatments for other viruses, including Nipah. That virus—known to be deadlier than the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen that causes COVID-19—is transferred from animals to humans and is experiencing an outbreak in India.

RELATED: Amid vaccine hoarding criticism, Biden admin plots $2.7 billion manufacturing push

The collaboration is quite timely, as the Biden administration signaled its desire for an Apollo-style effort to better prepare for the next pandemic. The White House wants $65 billion over seven to 10 years to fund a preparedness program, which includes $24.2 billion directed toward vaccines and $11.8 billion for therapeutics.