• Sophie Zettl, PhD, VP Business Development of CEBINA

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Biotech Industry

Twenty months ago, in late 2019, very few people had heard of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As the pandemic emerged and spread rapidly throughout the world, a seismic shift happened in the world of biomedical science. Rapidly, scientists, Biotech and Pharmaceutical companies around the world refocused their activities, modified their technologies and worked collaboratively to develop innovative ways to combat the pandemic. To illustrate the extent of this, today there are 1,697 drugs actively in the pipeline for COVID-19 disease [1]. This huge global effort is starting to pay off with the distribution of the first vaccines and treatments around the world and the deployment of various rapid diagnostic tests. There are today 69 approved drugs on the market in various territories around the world, comprising vaccines, antibody therapies and small molecules [1]. Given it takes on average at least 10 years to bring a new drug to market, the speed of development of these new vaccines and drugs is an historic accomplishment.

However, given the extent of spread of the virus around the globe, the limitation of availability of some vaccines and the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, coupled with potentially future coronavirus outbreaks there is an ongoing need for additional approaches to tackle this and similar viral diseases.

Nasal sprays with anti-SARS-CoV-2 activity may prove to be an important player in containing the current pandemic. Infection with the virus is spread mainly through respiratory uptake of the virus [2] and inhibiting viral replication in the respiratory track benefit the infected person early in an infection and prevent person-to-person transmission, which occurs even in the vaccinated population.

CEBINA is one such company who rapidly responded to the need for anti-viral approaches when the pandemic hit, initiating several COVID-19 R&D projects in March 2020. Through working with Professor Robert Konrat at the University of Vienna who applied in silico methods and computer predictions, CEBINA applied drug repurposing approaches to identify a widely available anti-histamine nasal-spray - azelastine - that has potential as an anti-COVID-19 approach. CEBINA rapidly completed laboratory testing of azelastine through collaborations with the University of Pécs in Hungary and University of Innsbruck in Austria, demonstrating that an azelastine containing nasal spray is effective in the reduction of SARS-CoV-2 infection in vitro [3]. Now, in partnership with URSAPHARM Arzneimittel GmbH, a large manufacturer and distributor of azelastine nasal spray, a Phase II clinical study is ongoing to test the anti-viral effect of azelastine in a clinical setting. Results from the clinical trial are expected shortly.

Although there is a long way to go before the pandemic is entirely over, the successes to date of global collaborations that have so rapidly brought life-saving drugs to patients have highlighted what can be achieved in the right environment. The many drugs and approaches coming through the pipeline hold real promise to contain the spread of the virus, and show the significant impact that cooperation between innovative biotechnology and life science based companies have on the pharmaceutical industry. For the future, rather than reverting to the ‘old ways’, this sense of innovation and global collaboration is likely to continue, given the heightened awareness of the risks that potential future pandemics pose and the proven benefits that collaborations have brought in developing cutting-edge technologies.

[1] Global data, accessed 07.07.2021 [2] Haslbeck, K., et al., Journal of Aerosol Science, 2010. 41(5): p. 429-438. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaerosci.2010.02.010 [3] https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.15.296228