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Next up in COVID-19 with Otello Stampacchia and Umer Raffat: a BioCentury podcast

What should biopharmas battling the pandemic be thinking about?

What should biopharmas battling the pandemic be thinking about?

August 13, 2021 2:24 AM GMT

What should biopharmas battling the pandemic be thinking about? Omega Funds’ Otello Stampacchia and Evercore ISI’s Umer Raffat join BioCentury’s editors on the BioCentury This Week podcast to discuss what’s next in COVID-19 countermeasures, the future of mRNA and the growing role of preprint servers in delivering data.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, more than 4.3 million people around the world have died and 4.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered, according to The Johns Hopkins University.

As many countries are struggling to get enough vaccines for their populations, new variants are testing the efficacy of the first vaccines to be authorized.

“Delta is probably not the end of the evolutionary spectrum for the virus,” says Stampacchia, founder and managing director of Omega Funds. He expects an increase in fatalities in the U.S. in the next few weeks, and anticipates the virus will continue to spread globally in the fall.

“Obviously, our industry isn’t done yet,” BioCentury Editor in Chief Simone Fishburn says, acknowledging the critical need for the biopharma sector to continue to innovate to battle the rapidly changing virus.

Asked what drug developers should be considering, Raffat zeroes in on the impact that oral antivirals could have in a post-exposure or pre-exposure prophylactic setting. Raffat is senior managing director at Evercore ISI, where he heads large cap therapeutics coverage spanning biotech, pharma and specialty pharma.

Raffat says oral treatments are “a very obvious next step that hasn’t quite happened.” He adds that while antivirals may not have a “big clinical impact” on those testing positive for COVID, they could be “quite relevant and quite an important addition to the armamentarium.”

“Shooting for the stars,” he says, industry could aim for vaccines with more potent T cell responses — which he believes some companies are working on — and vaccines that confer sterilizing immunity.

Stampacchia’s add to the tool kit would be “long-lasting subcutaneous, prophylactic antibodies that are very active against Delta.”

Turning to mRNA, Stampacchia says the technology, “used in the right way,” has the potential to “replace a huge chunk of the vaccine industry.” 

Key features of the technology, he says, are its “programmable” nature, the speed at which a modified vaccine against new variants can be developed, and the scalability of manufacturing. The efficacy, he adds, is remarkable.

“The thing that’s truly stunning to me is the level of immune response that [people] seem to develop because I think we have now data that the two mRNA vaccines that we have available on the market now are the two most powerful vaccines ever developed,” says Stampacchia. 

He believes mRNA will have applications beyond COVID-19.

Raffat is skeptical about how well mRNA’s efficacy will translate to other indications, such as cancer.

“It does look more infectious disease-oriented as it stands currently,” says Raffat. 

Circling back to small molecules, Fishburn points to the INTREPID alliance, which recently formed to provide an umbrella for the development of antivirals against pandemic threats.

BioCentury recently talked to Elliott Levy, head of the alliance, which Fishburn says is “pretty serious about creating systems for small molecule therapeutics for this and future pandemics.”

She also asks Raffat and Stampacchia how they are thinking about preprint publications and whether they look at data in those papers differently given that they’re not peer reviewed.

Stampacchia says the preprints have been a “phenomenally positive” resource.

Raffat lays out the two sides of the issue.

“In a fast-changing COVID situation, preprint was extraordinarily valuable,” says Raffat, citing the accessibility and speedy turnaround of data and hospital-level observations, critically important during a pandemic sparked by a rapidly mutating virus.

But, he adds, “if you want to do really deep diligence on something very specific, unless it’s like a super-rapidly-changing situation, there’s a lot of limitations to preprint servers the first obvious one being, it’s not as well vetted.”

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