Pharmaceutical giant Novartis is lending a helping hand to those on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic and as its research labs join others in the search for a vaccine.
On Friday, the company announced it was joining the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). The National Institutes of Health initiative hopes to bring together a dream team of pharmaceutical companies to work together on developing a vaccine. ACTIV participants will also research possible COVID-19 treatments.
Novartis had previously announced it would join the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as a COVID-19 directed partnership organized by the Innovative Medicines Initiative.
Though collaboration will likely speed up the research and development process, a vaccine is still likely far out. Many health care workers need assistance now.
Novartis is doing what it can on that front as well.
The company recently donated 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ, to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. FEMA is distributing the drug to the hospitals that need it most.
HCQ has been pitched as a possible treatment for COVID-19, though further research is needed before it can be how and whether it is truly effective in helping patients. Some small, early studies have shown promising results though in some people the drug can be harmful.
Thomas Kendris, who leads Novartis’ U.S. operations, told NJBIZ that the company is also sending HCQ to clinical researchers studying the drug’s efficacy.
“There’s limited data, open to interpretation. But that’s why we need to study it, and that’s why we’ve made sure that not only are we giving to the governments so that they can give it to doctors who need to prescribe it to patients, but we’re also making it available to these clinical studies because it’s important that we generate high-quality data in this new disease,” he said.
He added, “It is frustrating to have to wait for the results of the larger studies. But it’s really important to get this high-quality data back so we know how it can be used, where it’s most efficacious, where it can be safely used. And by where, I mean in what patients.”
Two other existing drugs, Jakavi and Ilaris, are being studied in COVID-19 patients as well.
“Jakavi is very well established as what is known as a ‘JAK-inhibitor.’ It’s been shown to reduce the levels of inflammatory cytokines in patients who have what that drug is indicated for, which is myelofibrosis. But in COVID-19 patients, Jakavi may be able to mitigate the effects of a type of severe reaction, the cytokine storm, that can result from the coronavirus infections—that contributes to the respiratory compromise that leads patients to really bad outcomes,” Kendris said.
Ilaris “also is an anti-inflammatory, not in cancer, but it would also be directed at that cytokine storm.”
Other immediate relief is in the pipe as well. Earlier this month, the company established a fund that will issue $5 million in grants to U.S. nonprofits working to mitigate the damage of the public health crisis.
The US COVID-19 Community Response Fund aims to boost programs protecting frontline workers from infection; developing digital platforms for data collection, telehealth and public health announcements; and enhancing community health programs related to the pandemic.