Biotech Pioneer Amgen Joins Hunt for Coronavirus Drug

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A scientist working at the Amgen campus in California.

Photo: Roger Kisby for the Wall Street Journal

Big biotech company Amgen Inc. AMGN 0.10% is joining the race to discover new drugs that can treat the novel coronavirus, the latest drugmaker redirecting resources toward the pandemic.

Amgen, which is partnering with Adaptive Biotechnologies Corp. ADPT 1.24% in the effort, is an unlikely hunter of antiviral treatments. The company, a pioneer of biotechnology, is best known for its drugs for cancer, with other products targeting high cholesterol, kidney disease and migraines.

Although it lacks infectious-disease expertise, Amgen, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., believes it might have something to contribute to fighting the pandemic because of its expertise in antibody drugs. In the treatment of viruses, the drugs aim to hunt down the pathogens, attach to them and then stop them from wreaking havoc.

  1. confirmed cases in the U.S.
  2. total deaths in the U.S.
Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

The antibody strategy has been used to develop a treatment for Ebola, and is being pursued in Covid-19 by several companies and academic labs including Vir Biotechnology Inc. and AbCellera Biologics Inc.

As the virus has spread, more companies across the industry are diverting researchers toward coronavirus drug and vaccine discovery.

Now, more than 115 companies are trying to develop drugs or vaccines for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Informa Pharma Intelligence, a data provider. Among the biggest entrants are Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences Inc. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.

“We don’t view this as a competition, but a moment when it’s all hands on deck to address the crisis,” David Reese, Amgen’s executive vice president of research and development, said in an interview.

Most of the companies pursuing anti-coronavirus agents are still in the very early stages of research, with about 93% of the 121 drugs in development yet to enter clinical trials, according to the Informa data.

Amgen and Adaptive’s drug, if it emerges, would be used to treat infected patients and help clear the virus from their bodies, Dr. Reese said. It could also potentially prove effective at providing temporary prophylactic protection for healthy people, such as front-line health-care workers at high risk of exposure, he said.

Amgen and Adaptive said they haven’t yet finalized financial details of the agreement, but are planning to start their research immediately given the urgency of the pandemic. Adaptive, based in Seattle, will be responsible for the first stage of discovery, and Amgen will handle clinical trials and manufacturing if the drug is ultimately approved.

In the first stage, Adaptive will identify the most promising antibodies against the coronavirus by analyzing the genetic sequences of immune cells from Covid-19 survivors. Amgen will choose the most promising antibody, or possibly a combination of two or more, to advance into clinical trials.

It may take five to six months for Adaptive to complete its portion of the antibody work, Chief Executive Chad Robins said in an interview. Adaptive’s gene-analysis technology is aimed at deciphering the immune system, and is used by pharmaceutical companies in drug development, clinical trials and other areas.

An Amgen subsidiary, deCODE Genetics, is conducting a continuing study of the genetic profiles of Covid-19 patients in Iceland. The analysis will provide Amgen with information about the genetic characteristics of patients who have survived the virus, the companies said.

In addition, the deCODE study is tracking the disease’s transmission in Iceland, where deCODE is based, as well as helping to predict which patients are most likely to develop serious illness after infection, Dr. Reese said.

Amgen and deCODE plan to publish all data from the study as quickly as possible, including genetic data providing insight into the disease, an Amgen spokeswoman said. The companies expect early findings from the study to be published soon in a medical journal.

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