Gates Foundation, Exscientia enter $70m agreement to develop COVID-19 treatments

By Jenni Spinner

- Last updated on GMT

(adventtr/iStock via Getty Images Plus)
(adventtr/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

Related tags COVID-19 Coronavirus Drug development Gates Foundation Preclinical contract research Artificial intelligence

The pharma tech firm has forged a four-year partnership with the foundation to develop antivirals for COVID-19 and other viruses with pandemic potential.

Exscientia, a technology company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help discover and develop drugs, has announced a four-year collaboration agreement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The partnership (worth a total of $70m USD) will focus on developing small-molecule therapeutics to battle the current COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for future pandemics.

According to Exscientia, the work will start off focusing on coming up with broad-spectrum coronavirus agents (e.g., SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, MERS), and accelerating the company’s lead program, which targets the main protease (Mpro) of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Then, the collaboration will broaden to develop therapeutics for influenza and Paramyxoviridae (e.g., Nipah), with the potential to develop additional programs as deemed appropriate.

Andrew Hopkins, Exscientia CEO, said the global experience with the COVID-19 highlights a serious need for such therapies.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgency to develop safe and effective broad-spectrum drugs to expand our armory against viruses and their variants​,” he said. “We need to fight today’s pandemic but also ensure we are prepared with new drugs to combat viruses with future pandemic potential​.”

Exscientia’s AI-driven platform is designed to enable scientific concepts to be rapidly translated into therapeutic candidates, with the goal of increasing the probability of success and an accelerated path to the patient.

Denise Barrault, director of portfolio management for Exscientia, small-molecule therapeutics offer significant potential in protecting global health against pandemic-causing viruses.

Certain targets are prevalent across families of viruses, meaning that potent therapeutics could be broadly effective across multiple virus families​,” Barrault commented. “Further, this collaboration will focus on evaluating protein targets that are evolutionarily conserved and are less likely to develop resistance​.”

The Gates Foundation’s investment in Exscientia was made through its Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), which harnesses a suite of financial tools to address market failures and incentivize private companies to develop affordable and accessible products and services for low-income populations. These investments are intended to further Gates Foundation goals, not for financial gain; if profit results, it is to be used for charitable purposes through Gates Foundation philanthropic programs.

Under the agreement terms, Exscientia will receive a $35m USD equity investment from the SIF, with the potential for additional grant funding to help advance development candidates through commercialization. The Gates Foundation’s program-related investment is subject to certain closing conditions being satisfied.

Additionally, the Gates Foundation also will contribute expertise in funding the design, development, and distribution of antiviral drugs. Exscientia will lead the initial antiviral projects and apply its platform technology to research, discover, and develop up to five Phase I-ready small molecule therapeutics for future pandemic preparedness.

What’s more, Exscientia will provide $35m USD in matching contributions, through operations and funding for third-party activities. The company holds global rights to any developed products with a commitment to make the anti-viral products affordable and accessible to people in developing countries.

Exscientia landed a Gates Foundation grant in July, to be used to expedite the optimization of a new class of COVID-19 therapeutics using its AI drug design platform. This work also focused on a novel class of inhibitors targeting the SARS-CoV-2’s main protease enzyme, Mpro, the causative agent of COVID-19; this work will continue under the new collaborative agreement.

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