The Pandemic Antiviral Discovery Fund aims to mirror its vaccines counterpart CEPI, advancing drugs to phase II development to be ready for when the next pandemic strikes
The Gates Foundation, Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation and Open Philanthropy, a charitable fund set up by co-founders of Facebook and the US software company Asana, have joined forces to form Pandemic Antiviral Discovery (PAD), a new initiative with $90 million to catalyse discovery and early development of antiviral drugs for future pandemics.
The goal of PAD is to help researchers worldwide discover and advance to phase II clinical development antivirals that target pandemic threat viruses. The focus will be on three virus families - coronaviruses, paramyxoviruses, and orthomyxoviruses – that are widely considered to have the greatest potential to spark pandemics.
Many of the diseases they cause, such as Nipah fever, primarily affect people in low and middle income countries and lack market incentives for the research and development of effective drugs to treat them. A key feature of PAD will be that there is equitable access for people in poorer countries to any antivirals it sponsors.
It will help to ensure this happens by focusing on small molecule drugs that are orally administered, are cheaper to manufacture and do not have special storage requirements. That is in contrast to the antibody-based therapies that form the majority of the antivirals developed for treating COVID-19, which are intravenously delivered, expensive to make and must be kept in refrigerators.
“The duration of the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a reminder that the world needs to invest in next generation tools to combat emerging threats,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation. “We can’t wait until the next pandemic hits to begin developing them.”
The first call for proposals is due to be launched next week at the International Conference on Antiviral Research in Seattle. PAD will initially focus on supporting projects that aim to increase understanding of the biology of the three virus families, in order to discover and validate new targets for small molecule antivirals.
There will also be a search for new chemical matter, including by compound library screening and structure based drug design. Promising hits will be advanced through phase I safety and pharmacokinetic studies.
“We see this as a promising opportunity to address one of the most severe risks to global welfare,” said Alexander Berger, co-CEO of Open Philanthropy. “Given the significant and perhaps unprecedented potential for harm from pandemic viruses, we are especially interested in breakthrough research that applies to a wide swathe of pathogen types.”
PAD wants to collaborate with governments, academic institutions, and private sector funders to de-risk development, increasing the probability of advancing to the clinical stage, said Trevor Mundel, president of global health at the Gates Foundation. “We look forward to collaborating with other funders from across public, private, and non profit sectors to accelerate this important initiative with equitable access at its core.”
Mundel said that while the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually come to an end, the urgency to invest in tools to prevent and stop future threats will only continue to grow. “Ensuring antivirals can be deployed on short notice and at low cost to everyone who needs them is a critical step if we are to be prepared for the next pandemic,” he said.