LONDON – The Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust have joined forces with financial services specialist Mastercard in establishing a $125 million seed fund to accelerate development of drugs to treat COVID -19.

The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator aims to play a catalytic role by speeding up evaluation of new and repurposed drugs and biologics to treat the novel coronavirus in the near term, and other viral pathogens in the longer term.

Gates and Wellcome will each put up $50 million, with the Gates contribution coming from a $100 million commitment to the COVID-19 response announced in February. The Mastercard money is from a $500 million Impact Fund which the company set up in 2018 to support projects that reduce income and information inequalities, and that make companies more resilient to the headwinds in a rapidly changing economy.

Joining the initiative to combat COVID-19 is in line with that commitment to inclusive growth, said Mike Froman, vice chair of Mastercard. “This global challenge not only represents a risk to the health and safety of populations all over the world, but also poses a potential disruption to the economic vitality of millions of people, businesses and organizations worldwide,” Froman said.

The accelerator was announced as the direct effects of the COVID-19 epidemic on the commercial outlook for the biotech industry started to be manifest. One of the biggest conferences in Europe, Bio-Europe Spring, due to take place in Paris, March 23 – 27, will “now [be] delivered digitally,” the organizers announced on March 9. Partnering meetings will be through an online conferencing service, with meetings scheduled around the clock to accommodate different time zones.

“Our sector should be preparing for significant global disruption to business through at least the first half of 2020,” said Steve Bates, chief executive of the U.K. Bioindustry Association, in his weekly update on March 9. “Members are making me aware of the impact on their businesses of the virtualization of Bio-Spring Europe, the cancellation of many business meetings by partners and disruption to their own supply chains,” Bates said.

The BIA will coordinate member engagement with national and international research initiatives, such as the COVID-19 therapeutics accelerator, Bates said.

In addition to pharma and biotech, the COVID-19 accelerator will work with the World Health Organization (WHO), governments and private funders, sharing research, coordinating investment and pooling resources to speed up all aspects of drug development, including manufacturing and scale-up. It also will be in touch with regulators to align their requirements.

The accelerator builds on the way in which resources – eventually – were pulled together during the 2013-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. After a stuttering start, that led to the testing of therapeutics and vaccines on the ground during the outbreak, under specially agreed protocols.

Inviting other funders to join the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said there is a need to invest at scale in a global collective effort. “Science is moving at a phenomenal pace against COVID-19, but to get ahead of this epidemic we need greater investment and to ensure research coordination,” he said.

Wellcome and the Gates Foundation already have committed to deploy their funds in line with the global roadmap for COVID-19 R&D published by WHO on March 6.

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, but the development of treatments moves slowly, said Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation. “We need to find a way to make research and development move faster.”

Three-pronged approach

The accelerator will take a three-pronged approach to identifying suitable compounds, testing approved drugs for activity against the new virus, screening libraries of molecules with confirmed safety data, and assessing novel drugs and monoclonal antibodies that are in clinical development.

Drugs that pass initial screening will be handed to industry partners for development, with the accelerator stepping in to support manufacturing. That will reduce the financial and technical risk, enabling those COVID-19 programs to draw on the expertise of pharma companies in clinical development and commercialization.

The ambition is that the accelerated pathway will see patients get access in around one year to repurposed drugs with a regulatory approval or products with existing clinical data. There are approved antiviral drugs currently in clinical trials in patients in China, with initial results expected within the next few weeks.

Both Wellcome and the Gates Foundation are members of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent body set up in response to a 2017 United Nations report to ensure preparedness for global health crises. On March 9, the board published its assessment of the COVID-19 crisis, calling for a greater global response, “at a scale commensurate with the problem.”

The board wants the G7 and G20 groups of nations and major international financial institutions to put $7 billion into the development and manufacturing of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. “Multiple candidates need to be developed in parallel, at scale and at risk – there is not time to do it in sequence,” its assessment says.