Research Roundup: Antiviral pill proves effective, open-source antiviral project gets funding boost, and Sanofi to pivot mRNA program
Merck plans to seek authorization for its COVID-19 antiviral pill after clinical trial results showed the drug, molnupiravir, cut the risk of hospitalization or death in half among high-risk individuals early in their infections. An independent board of experts monitoring the study data had recommended that the trial be stopped early because the drug’s benefit to patients had proved so convincing, and the US Food and Drug Administration agreed, according to Merck. The drug, designed to stop the virus from replicating, is taken as four capsules twice a day for five days. As an oral antiviral treatment, the pill could be a crucial new tool in combating COVID-19 by reaching more people than the antibody treatments being widely used in the United States.
COVID Moonshot, an open-source effort to design a COVID-19 pill, has won US$11 million, or GBP£8 million, from the Wellcome Trust to develop a low-cost, broadly available antiviral to fight the pandemic. The project, coordinated by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, is a nonprofit consortium of scientists that began in March 2020 and led to around 250 people submitting more than 4,500 potential molecular designs intended to block the key protein that helps the virus replicate. The new funding, through Wellcome on behalf of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, will help pay for the expensive last step of research needed to bring the project into human clinical trials. Moonshot hopes to have a compound able to be tested in humans by next year.
Sanofi’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine showed positive results in a phase 1/2 clinical trial, the company announced last week, providing confidence in its mRNA program that will now be used to pursue vaccines against other pathogens, including influenza. Sanofi will not be continuing to develop its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, as the market will have been saturated by the time it would be authorized, the company said. In the preliminary phase 1/2 trial results, 91 percent of people who received the lowest tested dose saw their neutralizing antibody levels increase four-fold, a measure thought to equate to a protective level of antibodies, confirming that the mRNA platform is potent, can generate a strong immune response, and has no safety signal. Sanofi will now turn to accelerating its work on a vaccines “center of excellence” intended to be ready to produce vaccines when the next pandemic hits.