Fierce JPM Week: Vir CEO Scangos on competing in the COVID antibody space—and life beyond the pandemic

A year ago at this time, Vir Biotechnology CEO and Biogen veteran George Scangos was presenting early data on the startup’s antivirals to treat HIV, flu and hepatitis B. Little did he know that within a matter of weeks, the world would be desperate to find cures for an entirely new virus.

When COVID-19 started spreading around the world, Vir was ready to pivot to address the pandemic—and Scangos led the charge.

“We had thought all along that one of the things Vir could contribute was to prevent or treat future pandemics. We were certainly thinking about that in terms of flu,” Scangos said in a video interview during Fierce JPM Week. “So when COVID came along, we had ready a particular set of technologies and approaches that we thought would be particularly useful.”

Now, Vir has an antibody in phase 3 testing for COVID-19, which the company is developing with GlaxoSmithKline. The partners have an additional antibody to treat the virus in preclinical studies, and Vir is working with RNAi pioneer Alnylam on an siRNA treatment for the virus.

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Vir is lagging other major players in the COVID antibody race, including Eli Lilly and Regeneron, both of which have emergency use authorization for their treatments.

But Scangos said Vir took a different approach that they hope to prove will yield a more effective antibody treatment. The effort started with Humabs BioMed, a Swiss company that Vir bought in 2017. Humabs had isolated antibodies from patients who recovered from SARS, the coronavirus that caused a smaller outbreak in the early 2000s.

“So when the COVID outbreak began, we isolated antibodies from COVID patients,” Scangos said. But it was antibodies from SARS patients that were critical to landing on the best treatment, he said. The rationale was that any antibody against SARS that is also able to neutralize COVID must recognize a shared “epitope,” the region of the antigen that elicits the immune response, he said.

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That epitope, which Vir and GSK are targeting, is less likely to mutate and more likely to be vital for the functioning of the virus, Vir’s scientists hypothesized. Furthermore, their lead antibody has potent “effector function,” he said, meaning it strongly binds to immune cells and brings them close to COVID-infected cells so they can kill the virus. “Effector function…is very important…for maximizing the potency of the therapy,” Scangos said. Vir expects to release data from the phase 3 trial program this quarter.

Despite the all-encompassing task of fighting the pandemic, Scangos is doing all he can to “make the point that we’re not just a COVID company,” he said.

In fact, Vir announced Tuesday that it was teaming up with Gilead Sciences to test its siRNA hepatitis B treatment—developed alongside Alnylam—in combination with Gilead's TLR-8 agonist selgantolimod.

Vir is also testing the hep B candidate, called VIR-2218, on a solo basis. It's in competition with siRNAs in development from Roche and Johnson & Johnson, but Scangos hopes Vir will have a safety edge over the competition.

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“All siRNAs have off-target activity that can lead to some toxicity. Alnylam has incorporated some interesting features into their siRNAs that demonstrably reduce the amount of off-target activity,” Scangos said. Vir is also testing the compound in combination with interferon, and it has developed an antibody to the hepatitis B antigen that’s in early testing and could be combined with Alnylam’s siRNA in the future.

“Our view…is that the most effective treatment modality will be something that stimulates a T-cell response” from the immune system, which will “bring the HBV infection back under control,” he said.

Vir expects key data readouts from its COVID and HBV programs this year, making it a potentially transformational time for the three-year-old company. Vir’s influenza A antibody program is progressing quite a bit more slowly—but not because the company had to redirect resources away from it to fund the COVID work.

“We were ready to go into phase 2 in the southern hemisphere flu season, which began in the spring here, but we couldn’t because there was no flu. The social distancing that reduces COVID also eliminates flu,” Scangos explained. Now Vir is planning to launch that trial program in the northern hemisphere this coming fall.  

For Scangos, the emergence of COVID only serves to underscore the importance of companies like Vir that are laser-focused on finding innovative solutions to infectious disease. That’s what drew him to the startup in the first place, he said.

“There are so many infectious diseases, both in the developing world and the developed world, that need better therapies,” Scangos said. “The need for new treatments is even more obvious now with COVID,” he added, making it all that more exciting to put together a company that could accumulate “some really interesting new technologies and apply them to new infectious diseases.”