Novartis taps Molecular Partners for a new way to defeat COVID-19

Novartis is spending $69 million upfront on a pair of experimental drugs from Fierce 15 winner Molecular Partners.

The deal is for MP0420 and MP0423, two antivirals out of the biotech’s so-called DARPin tech, which Molecular Partners says has “multi-specific target binding with the potential to prevent viral escape via mutations, the possibility for subcutaneous administration, long half-life for sustained activity, the potential to bypass cold storage and typically high-yield, highly scalable production in bacterial fermenters.”

This would be a novel way of trying to stop the virus, although both meds are still very early-stage with much to prove. It’s also the first real major step and collab for Novartis amid the pandemic.

MP0420 is the furthest along, with a phase 1 slated for next month to be undertaken by Molecular Partners. It will also work on the remaining preclinical stage for MP0423. If all goes well, Novartis will then step in and conduct phase 2 and phase 3, with Molecular Partners as sponsor of these tests.

Should Novartis hit up its option to fully license these meds, it would then be responsible for all further development and sales.

The pair will also work together to scale up manufacturing capacity in collaboration with Novartis’ generics and biosimilar biz Sandoz.

The pact could have an extra $165 million thrown in if Novartis takes up the option on both drugs, though Molecular Partners will forgo royalties in lower-income countries, should they gain approval, to help lower costs.  

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“Our team rapidly mobilized to deliver a unique DARPin-based approach to address the overwhelming need for effective therapeutics against COVID-19,” said Patrick Amstutz, Ph.D., CEO of Molecular Partners.

“As a class, DARPins have demonstrated over years of clinical research a number of characteristics that enhance their profile as antiviral therapeutics for a global pandemic. We have built on this long-term research with these two candidates, which have demonstrated extremely potent neutralization of the virus through inhibiting multiple viral mechanisms.”

Molecular Partners already has several Big Pharma pacts, including with Amgen and AbbVie/Allergan, though the latter hit a block this year when its partnered eye drug Abicipar pegol was hit with a complete response letter over safety issues. This also uses its DARPin tech.

It did have a major $1 billion cancer deal with fellow Swiss major Roche, but the Big Pharma backed out of the deal in 2015.