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Gates, Wellcome hatch $125M plan to speed coronavirus treatments

Three philanthropic foundations on Tuesday said they would spend up to $125 million to help advance treatments for the new coronavirus in a collaborative effort engaging regulators, non-governmental organizations and the biopharma industry.The effort, dubbed the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, will seek to encourage research and development of existing drugs that can be repurposed for the coronavirus as well as new agents not yet authorized for use in humans.The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome are each contributing $50 million and the Mastercard Impact Fund the remaining $25 million.

The new virus, called SARS-CoV-2, has infected more than 110,000 people worldwide and led to over 4,000 deaths as of March 10, according to numbers from the World Health Organization. While the outbreak has had its biggest effect in China, where nearly 81,000 cases have been reported, people in 110 countries have been diagnosed with the viral disease.

Several biopharma companies have started work on a preventive vaccine. But even if successful, a vaccine likely wouldn’t be available for at least a year or more, and public health officials are eager for a treatment that can be used on infected patients sooner. Thus, Gilead’s experimental Ebola drug remdesivir has been rushed into clinical trials. The new COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator aims to hasten the development of a slate of others.

The Gates Foundation had already committed up to $100 million to help respond to the outbreak, and its up to $50 million contribution to the accelerator will be part of that commitment. COVID-19 is the respiratory condition suffered by patients who are infected with SARS-CoV-2.

The group will use a variety of methods to unearth a treatment. It will test already approved drugs for activity against the virus, for instance, or search through libraries of experimental compounds with existing safety data — an approach drugmakers like Pfizer and Sanofi are taking, too.

The accelerator will also evaluate unproven medicines that biopharma companies could then take forward.

“Fast and flexible funding” will help reduce the financial risk that failure of an experimental drug will cause to biopharma companies, especially those without commercial revenue, the group said in a statement.

The accelerator intends to work with regulators and industry partners to quickly build up the manufacturing capacity to test a variety of drugs.

The Gates Foundation estimated that this effort will be able to deliver an already marketed drug or experimental agent with clinical data for use in coronavirus patients within a year. Earlier stage drugs will take longer.

The need to collaborate with regulators, governments, global health charities, and private-sector companies was a lesson of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, according to the foundation.