Almost eight months after the White House first announced it would move from containment to mitigation efforts to stop the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, the Administration is now pinning its hopes on vaccines to inoculate the population and therapies to treat the disease.
Months after announcing it would be working with technology giants Apple and Google on a contact tracing app (and nearly two months after Google and Apple rolled out their exposure notification features) and initiating wide spread testing efforts nationwide with the largest national pharmacies (which never received the coordinated support it needed), the Administration appears to be giving up on a national effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said that the US is “not going to control the pandemic… We are gonna control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation.”
The admission is a final nail in the coffin for a federal response that could have involved a return to lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus, or national testing and contact tracing and other mitigation measures. Meadows statement comes as the US experiences a second peak in infection rates. There are now over 8.1 million cases and over 220,000 deaths since the first confirmed infection on US soil on January 20.
Now, the focus is all on the vaccines, therapies and treatments being developed by large pharma companies and startups alike that are making their way through the approval processes of regulatory agencies around the world.
The vaccines in phase three clinical trials
There are currently 12 vaccines in large scale, late-stage clinical trials around the world, including ones from American companies Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Therapeutics, and Pfizer who are recruiting tens of thousands of people in the US and UK to volunteer for testing.
In China, the state run pharmaceutical company Sinopharm has filed its application to China’s regulatory commission for the approval of a vaccine and hundreds of thousands of civilians have already been vaccinated under emergency use approvals from the Chinese government, according to a report in the New Yorker. Meanwhile the privately held Chinese pharmaceutical company, Sinovac, is moving forward with phase three trials for its own vaccine in Brazil, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Another private Chinese company, CanSino Biologics developed a vaccine that was already being distributed to members of the Chinese military in late July,
A collaboration in the U.K. between the University of Oxford and European pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is also recruiting volunteers in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, the US and South Africa. And, in Australia, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is trying to see whether a vaccine used to prevent tuberculosis could be used to vaccinate against the coronavirus.
Finally in Russia, the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in partnership with the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund have claimed to have developed a vaccine that the country has registered as the first one on the market cleared for widespread use. Russia has not published any data from the clinical trials it claims to have conducted to prove the efficacy of the vaccine and the World Health Organization still considers the treatment to be in the first phase of development.
Therapies in phase three clinical trials
If vaccines can prevent against infection, a slew of companies are also working on ways to limit the severity of the disease should someone become infected with Sars-Cov-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The Milken Institute lists 41 different therapies that have made it through to phase three of their clinical trials (the last phase before approval for widespread delivery).
These therapies come in one of five primary categories: antibody therapies, antivirals, cell-based therapies, RNA-based treatments, and repurposing existing treatments that may be in pharmaceutical purgatory.
Antibody therapies use the body’s natural defense systems either taken from the blood of people who have recovered from an infection or manufactured in a lab to neutralize the spread of a virus or bacteria. Antivirals, by contrast, stop a virus from spreading by attacking the viruses’ ability to replicate. Cell-based therapies are designed to boost the immune system’s ability to fight pathogens like viruses or bacteria. Meanwhile RNA-based treatments are another method to stop the virus from replicating by blocking the construction of viral proteins. Finally, several companies are mining their libraries of old drug compounds to see if any might be candidates for COVID-19 treatments.
So far, only three therapeutics have been approved to treat COVID-19. In the U.K. and Japan dexamethasone has received approvals, while favilavir is being used in China, Italy and Russia; and — famously thanks to its use by the President — remdesivir has been approved in the United States, Japan and Australia.
The US is also using convalescent plasma to treat hospitalized patients under emergency use authorizations. And special cases, like the President’s, have had access to other experimental treatments like Regeneron’s cell therapy under emergency use authorizations.
And there are several US-based startups developing potential COVID-19 therapies in each of these areas.
Adaptive Biotechnologies, Cytovia Therapeutics, and SAB Biotherapeutics are all developing antibody treatments. Applied Therapeutics is using an understanding of existing compounds to develop treatments for specific conditions associated with COVID-19. Cellularity has a cell-therapy that could reduce a patient’s viral load by stimulating so-called natural killer cells to attack infected cells. Humanigen has developed a new drug that could reduce fatalities in high-risk COVID-19 patients with severe pneumonia. Meanwhile Partner Therapeutics is working on a drug that could improve lung function in COVID-19 patients — and potentially boost antibody production against the virus and restore damaged lung cells. Finally, Sarepta Therapeutics has been working with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to find ways for its RNA-based treatment to stop the spread of coronaviruses by attacking the ability for the virus to replicate.
Beyond therapies, startups are finding other ways to play a role in helping the nation address the COVID-19 epidemic.
“At this point the U.S. doesn’t have the best public health system, but at the same time we have best-in-class private companies who can sometimes operate a lot more efficiently than governments can,” Carbon Health chief executive Eran Bali told the audience at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 conference. “We also just recently launched a program to help COVID-positive patients get back to health quickly, a rehabilitation program. Because as you know even if you survive it doesn’t mean your body was not affected, there are permanent effects.”
Indeed the drive for more effective at-home tests and remote treatments for consumers are arguably more important when the federal government refuses to make the prevention of viral spread a priority, because consumers may voluntarily lock down if the government won’t.
“This is an opportunity to take a technology that naturally is all about detecting viruses — that’s what CRISPR does in [its native environment] bacteria — and repurposing it to use it as a rapid diagnostic for coronavirus,” said the Nobel Prize-winning co-inventor of some foundational CRISPR gene-editing technology, Jennifer Doudna. “We’re finding in the laboratory that that means that you can get a signal faster, and you can also get a signal that is more directly correlated to the level of the virus.”
Reliance Retail, India’s largest retail chain, said on Sunday evening that its proposed deal to acquire Future Group’s assets for $3.4 billion — against which Amazon has filed a legal proceeding — is fully enforceable under the Indian law and it intends to complete the deal “without any delay.”
The American e-commerce group, which indirectly bought a 3.58% stake in Future Group’s Future Retail business last year, reached out to a Singapore arbitration panel over the multi-billion dollar proposed deal.
Amazon’s deal with Future Retail had given the American e-commerce giant the first right to refusal on purchase of more stakes in Future Retail, the Indian firm had said at the time. Amazon, Walmart’s Flipkart, and Reliance Industries, the most valuable firm in India, are locked in an intense battle to shape how hundreds of millions of Indians would shop in the future.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company was “grateful for the order which grants all the reliefs that were sought. We remain committed to an expeditious conclusion of the arbitration process.”
At the moment, it is unclear whether today’s injunction is enforceable in India. Indeed, in a statement, a Reliance Industry spokesperson said that Reliance Retail’s transaction for acquisition of assets and business of Future Retail were conducted under “proper legal advice” and the “rights and obligations are fully enforceable under Indian law.”
Reliance Retail “intends to enforce its rights and complete the transaction in terms of the scheme and agreement with Future group without any delay,” the spokesperson added.
The legal proceeding in Singapore has come as a surprise to many in the industry, as Amazon is said to be preparing to acquire a multi-billion-dollar stake in Reliance Retail, according to earlier reports by ET Now and Bloomberg.
With e-commerce commanding only between 3 -7% of all retail sales in India — and Reliance Retail launching its own e-commerce business to fight Amazon and Flipkart — Amazon’s reported future deal with Reliance Retail is already been seen by many industry analysts as crucial for the American e-commerce firm’s future in India. Amazon, which kickstarted its journey in India seven years ago, has invested more than $6.5 billion in its local business in the country.
Founded in 2006, Reliance Retail serves more than 3.5 million customers each week (as of early this year) through its nearly 12,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns in the country.
The retail chain, run by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, has raised about $5.14 billion by selling about an 8.5% stake in its business to Silver Lake, Singapore’s GIC, General Atlantic and others in the past two months.
Ambani’s other venture, Jio Platforms, this year raised over $20 billion from more than a dozen marquee investors, including Google and Facebook.
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The team behind John Bronco—Director Jake Szymanski (HBO’s Tour de Pharmacy) and producer Marc Gilbar—started on the idea in 2019 but ultimately timed the project for maximum impact when they learned Ford had real-life plans to relaunch the iconic Bronco late this summer. According to The Ringer, the team met directly with Ford and earned access to the company’s marketing archives, which get mined thoroughly for aesthetic and pseudo-accuracy in the film. For instance: if you, too, were also born after the mid-1980s, maybe it’d be surprising to learn Doug Flutie had enough of a Q score to actually hawk cars for Ford in 1985 (though the original ad does not seem to end in tragedy).
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