- Eli Lilly will join the pharmaceutical industry's push to develop treatments for COVID-19, the illness linked to the new coronavirus, announcing Thursday a partnership with the private biotech AbCellera.
- Together, Lilly and AbCellera will screen antibodies isolated from one of the first U.S. patients who was infected and later recovered, searching for immune proteins that can neutralize the virus.
- Lilly hopes to begin testing antibody-based treatments that emerge from that effort within the next four months, a comparatively rapid timeline to move into clinical study. Others, including the team of Biogen and Vir Biotechnology, are taking a similar approach, but haven't yet begun human trials.
Unlike some of its pharmaceutical peers, Lilly isn't well known for its infectious disease drug research.
Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, two drugmakers that have begun work on coronavirus vaccines in recent weeks, are among the largest antiviral drug manufacturers. Regeneron, which is working on engineering antibody treatments for the virus, has developed drugs for the Ebola virus.
But Lilly does have significant experience with antibodies and, by partnering with AbCellera, will work with a company that's already identified several hundred antibody sequences isolated from a recovered coronavirus patient.
Sifting through that data to find one that appears active against the virus, now called SARS-CoV-2, is the companies' next task, one potentially aided by a pending agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"[O]ur goal with AbCellera is to be testing potential new therapies in patients within the next four months," said Lilly's chief scientific officer Daniel Skovronsky in a Thursday statement.
While Lilly and AbCellera emphasized speed, their research still needs to progress through candidate selection before initial human testing can begin to determine whether any drug that results is safe and possibly beneficial.
Much of the pharmaceutical industry's efforts are similarly early, although results could soon be available from Phase 3 studies of Gilead's repurposed antiviral remdesivir. Vaccines, the most effective tool in combating the spread of infectious diseases, are likely 12 to 18 months away at the very earliest, a point NIAID director Anthony Fauci has repeatedly emphasized.
Antibody-based treatments like what Regeneron, and now Lilly, are developing could come sooner, although drug development's typical track record suggests many candidates will not end up proving successful.
While Regeneron is engineering its own antibodies to target proteins expressed by SARS-CoV-2, Lilly and AbCellera aim to start with immune cells naturally produced by a recovered patient.
Vir and partner Biogen are doing the same, but working from Vir's library of antibodies isolated from people who survived SARS, an illness caused by a genetically similar virus to SARS-CoV-2.