A consortium led by international scientists from the non-profit, open-science COVID Moonshot has been awarded an initial $68,662,387 from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to discover and develop globally accessible and affordable novel oral antivirals to combat COVID-19 and future pandemics.
‘If we had clinic-ready antivirals suitable for SARS-CoV-2 when the pandemic struck in late 2019, we could have perhaps saved millions of lives,’ said Dr Ben Perry, Discovery Open Innovation Leader at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), and a founder of the COVID Moonshot. ‘The world needs a diverse stockpile of novel antiviral compounds that can be quickly advanced for the current pandemic and when the next pandemic strikes, and it is essential that these be affordable and equitably accessible to everyone.’
The consortium has created the artificial intelligence (AI)-driven Structure-enabled Antiviral Platform (ASAP), which will use cutting-edge technology, encompassing advanced structural biology, AI, machine learning, and computational chemistry on Folding@home, the world’s largest distributed computing platform, to build a robust antiviral discovery pipeline.
DNDi is one of the three institutions leading the consortium, along with AI-driven biotech PostEra and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. ASAP partners include the Diamond Light Source (UK); PostEra (USA); the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (USA); the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel); Medchemica (UK); Mount Sinai (USA); Stanford University School of Medicine (USA); the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center (USA), and DNDi, as well as a vast global network of scientists and industry collaborators.
ASAP will be one of the Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern funded by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as part of the Antiviral Program for Pandemics (APP). Today’s award (award number 1U19AI171399-01) is for the initial three-year phase of the ASAP project, which aims to produce preclinical candidates against multiple viral targets.
The ultimate objective of the project is to deliver multiple drug candidates ready for evaluation in humans in the event of an ongoing or emerging pandemic threat. The project will maximize the use of an open science model that prioritizes global, equitable, and affordable access.
ASAP is built on the successes of the COVID Moonshot, a global, open-science collaboration that began in March 2020 and rapidly identified potent antivirals targeting the main protease of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which are currently undergoing a preclinical development program funded by the Wellcome/COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator. The open science data publicly shared by Moonshot additionally enabled the identification of another promising COVID-19 drug developed by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Shionogi that is now in late-stage clinical trials.
‘The rapid progress of Moonshot demonstrates the power of AI-driven drug design,’ said Dr Alpha Lee, Chief Scientific Officer of PostEra and a founder of the COVID Moonshot. ‘Our algorithms generate molecules with optimized properties that can quickly be made and tested in the lab and help us select the most important experiments. ASAP will take this to the next level.’ Dr Lee is one of the leaders of ASAP.
ASAP will target viral families that have been historically neglected by the market, with an initial focus on coronaviruses, responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic as well as earlier SARS and MERS epidemics. It will also address flaviviruses, responsible for large endemic diseases such as dengue and Zika whose vectors will inevitably come to the United States due to climate change, and picornaviruses, responsible for devastating diseases such as polio.
‘We are honored to be a part of this consortium, supported by NIAID, especially because ASAP is prioritizing open sharing of research knowledge and data and delivery of novel therapeutics with the explicit goal of ensuring equitable access globally,’ said Rachel Cohen, Regional Executive Director of DNDi North America. ‘There will be billions spent globally on discovery and development of new health tools for COVID-19 and other pandemics and we need more open approaches like this so we can prevent the equity failures of COVID-19.’
A non-profit research and development organization, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) works to deliver new treatments for people living with neglected diseases, especially Chagas disease, sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis), leishmaniasis, filarial infections, mycetoma, pediatric HIV, hepatitis C, and dengue. DNDi is also coordinating a clinical trial to find treatments for mild-to-moderate COVID-19 cases in low- and middle-income countries.
Since its creation in 2003 by Médecins Sans Frontières, DNDi has provided nine new treatments, including new drug combinations for visceral leishmaniasis, two fixed-dose antimalarial drugs, and the first chemical entity it developed, fexinidazole, approved in 2018 for the treatment of both stages of sleeping sickness.
Frédéric Ojardias (DNDi, Geneva)
+41 79 431 62 16
Ilan Moss (DNDi, New York)
+1 646 266 5216
Photo credit: Don Paul-DNDi