GSK’s Covid-19 Valentine to Vir Biotech: ‘You Can Go Your Own Way’

breakup, break up, heart, heartbreak, love

Vir Biotechnology’s Covid-19 research may yield more drugs and perhaps a vaccine, but no longer with the financial support of GSK. The collaboration agreement the two companies struck up in the early days of the pandemic has been amended, leaving Vir to either find another partner or continue its coronavirus research on its own.

The alliance did successfully develop the Covid-19 drug sotrovimab. GSK and Vir will continue to share responsibilities for that drug, which is available under the brand name Xevudy in more than 40 countries. The U.S. is no longer one of them. Last April, the FDA withdrew emergency authorization for the drug due to its ineffectiveness against the omicron strains that became dominant. But in their announcement of the amended pact after the market close Monday, GSK and Vir said they work together to ensure access to Xevudy in the markets where the drug is authorized.

Vir and GSK began their alliance in the spring of 2020, a time when there were no FDA-authorized vaccines or therapies for Covid-19. The British pharma giant made a $250 million equity investment in Vir, beginning a partnership initially focused on developing two antibody-based antiviral drugs, one of which became sotrovimab. Less than a year after inking that deal, GSK committed another $345 million to expand the alliance to other respiratory viruses, including influenza.

The respiratory programs stemming from the 2022 expansion of the alliance are still partnered. One of the programs, VIR-2482, is a monoclonal antibody intended not as an influenza treatment, but rather for preventing illness from the virus. This Vir antibody is designed to neutralize all major strains of influenza A, and it incorporates technology from Xencor that extends the drug’s half-life. That means VIR-2482’s protection could potentially last an entire flu season.

Vir says VIR-2482 offers the potential to address limitations of current flu vaccines by providing higher protection through coverage of more flu strains without relying on an individual to generate an antibody response. The collaboration agreement gives GSK the exclusive license to lead development of this program after Phase 2 testing, which began last fall. Preliminary data are expected in mid-2023.

VR-7832, the second of two Covid-19 antibodies from the original collaboration agreement, remains covered under the amended deal. Vir is now solely responsible for turning the collaboration’s research into next-generation Covid-19 products. If any of them reach the market, Vir would pay GSK royalties from sales. Vir is prepared to continue its coronavirus research alone, while also continuing to work with GSK on sotrovimab and other respiratory programs.

“Our collaborative efforts have also yielded a compelling portfolio of next-generation coronavirus solutions that, given Vir’s infectious disease expertise, we plan to pursue independently,” CEO George Scangos said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to advancing both efforts simultaneously and continuing to support urgent patient needs.”

The ending of the coronavirus collaboration does not mean GSK is out of the hunt for new Covid-19 products. In 2021, the pharma giant entered messenger RNA research through an alliance with CureVac. Though CureVac faltered in its efforts to develop a messenger RNA-based vaccine for Covid-19, the new alliance aimed to leverage mRNA technology into multi-valent vaccines that could protect against multiple variants with a single shot.

In GSK’s presentation of 2022 financial results earlier this month, Chief Scientific Officer Tony Wood noted that CureVac has encouraging early Phase 1 data for its flu and Covid-19 mRNA vaccines. The data show potential for developing multi-valent vaccines.

“We are excited about the potential of doublet vaccines and we are pleased with the progress we are making on both the COVID and influenza projects,” Wood said.

Photo: poshfoto, Getty Images