Scrip talked to George Scangos about his dual roles in the pandemic response, helming Vir as the company tests antibody and siRNA approaches while working with BIO to facilitate coronavirus collaborations.
George Scangos made a surprising shift when the former Biogen CEO left the world of big biotech to lead an infectious disease-focused start-up. Vir Biotechnology (NASDAQ: VIR) emerged in early 2017 with $150m and quickly brought its fundraising total later that year to more than $500m. The company went public late last year and Vir’s participation in the search for a coronavirus treatment has thrust the company into the spotlight in the last month, and elevated Scangos’s profile once again since he’s also leading BIO’s outreach to biotech firms to help get their coronavirus ideas from concept to clinical trials.
Vir’s stock has surged from $12.15 at the start of the year to $39.76 as of 20 March as it revealed three different partnerships to manufacture and develop antibodies and short interfering RNA (siRNA) medicines to treat COVID-19.
In an interview with Scrip, Scangos noted that many companies want to apply their expertise to the rapid search for COVID-19 vaccines and cures, but they don’t know where to start and don’t have the resources to go it alone.
“There are a number of biotech companies who have either early-stage research programs, marketed products or technologies that they would like to test to see if they have the capability to do something for COVID,” Scangos said. “One of the things BIO would like to do is facilitate interactions between companies who have complementary strengths, so that they can work together.”
He noted that companies are willing to form partnerships now to get work started rapidly and work out the commercial details later. That’s what his company did when it signed an agreement to have Biogen manufacture antibodies that Vir is advancing as potential treatments for COVID-19.
“It is an opportunity for the biotech industry and the companies in that industry to step up and work together collectively so that we can do something to head off this pandemic,” Scangos said. “My role has been to work with the staff at BIO and the members of the board at BIO to make those things happen. The other function I think BIO can serve is information, not only to its member companies but to the public and to other groups that are wanting to know what it is that BIO can do and what it is doing.”
San Francisco-based Vir’s employees are largely working from home with the exception of scientists who work in the lab, as the state of California has ordered residents to shelter in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
“Everybody at Vir and I think across the industry is working under conditions that they’re not used to working in and people have been working flat out. The day starts really early and it goes very late,” Scangos said. He noted that Vir and others across the biopharmaceutical industry “feel an incredible sense of urgency” to bring forward COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
One of the technology platforms that Vir is applying to COVID-19 is its antibody platform, which the company uses to isolate antibodies from patients who have recovered from infectious diseases and then engineers those antibodies to enhance their therapeutic effects.
“We have done that repeatedly in the past with success,” Scangos said. “During one of the Ebola outbreaks we had isolated, from a patient who recovered from Ebola, antibodies to Ebola. We screened many thousands of antibodies in order to find two that were capable of actually blocking an Ebola infection and seemed to have other properties.”
One of those, called mAb114, was isolated by one of Vir’s scientists as part of a collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which tested the antibody and an antibody therapeutic from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN) to see how each candidate worked in Ebola patients; both were more effective than Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s ZMapp.
MAb114 is being tested in an NIH-led Phase 2/3 trial in Africa with initial data published last November in the New England Journal of Medicine. Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP entered into a patent license agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for mAb114 in November 2018 and is moving it forward with the goal of eventual US Food and Drug Administration approval. Vir retains an economic interest in mAb114 and may be eligible for payments.
Vir’s antibody platform also yielded VIR-2482 for prophylactic use against influenza A, which the company is testing in a Phase 1 clinical trial in human volunteers. VIR-2482 is engineered with a long half-life that should cover patients for the entire flu season, which typically is about five to six months long.
“We have a pan-flu antibody that recognizes all strains of influenza A that have arisen since the 1918 pandemic. It also recognizes many strains of flu that have never been in humans, so avian strains that could be the source of the next pandemic, and we’re bringing that forward as a better way to prevent flu than a vaccine,” Scangos said.
He noted that flu vaccines usually are effective against only about 40% of flu strains in a given season and they are even less effective for the elderly and other high-risk populations, because manufacturers have to guess in the fall which strain will be active a year later before they manufacture their vaccines in the spring. Also, not everyone who receives the flu vaccine generates an effective immune response.
“We’re giving them the antibody that provides the response, so it can overcome both of those limitations,” Scangos said. “And we have really effective antibodies that look like they’re effective against Zika, dengue and other infections. We are using the same approach for coronaviruses.”
Vir isolated a large number of antibodies that were capable of neutralizing SARS after the last SARS epidemic. In anticipation that additional outbreaks would emerge, the company screened some of those antibodies for their ability to neutralize coronaviruses before the emergence of SARS-CoV-2.
“We had a running start to screen our antibodies against CoV-2, which we have done, and at the same time we had gone back to SARS patients and identified some additional antibodies,” Scangos said. “We have serum from recovered COVID patients, so we have a large number of antibodies that are in process and our goal is to move those forward and get them through manufacturing and into clinical testing as soon as we can.”
Vir has not given any guidance on when it will identify a COVID-19 antibody that can be taken into clinical trials, but it anticipates making a more specific disclosure within a few weeks or months.