Swiss authorities reserve "millions" of doses of novel protein treatment to combat Covid-19

3D print of a spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Source: NIAID.

Swiss authorities secure priority access for “extremely robust” Covid-19 treatment. On Tuesday, the Federal government secured priority access for the first 200,000 doses of a novel COVID-19 treatment, mainly for patients with COVID-19 but potentially also as a prophylactic for at-risk groups like healthcare workers or older people.

The therapy, which was developed by Molecular Partners - a Zurich-based biotech firm - consists of genetically engineered “DARP” proteins that bind tightly to multiple regions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, thus preventing it from infecting human cells. Should the treatment deliver positive results in clinical trials planned for autumn 2020, Switzerland will have the right to be supplied with up to 3 million further doses.

Why it’s important to have a broad palette of Covid-19 treatments. So far, effective treatments and vaccines against Covid-19 are scarce. There’s only one Covid-19 treatment that actually reduces mortality in affected patients - dexamethasone, a common anti-inflammatory therapy used to treat arthritis and asthma.

Although more than 200 vaccines are in development - with over two dozen in clinical trials - it will take time to ensure that they are effective and safe in the general population, and even more time to distribute them to those in need. And because no single company can produce enough product for the whole world, it’s crucial to have a palette of diverse Covid-19 treatments up our sleeve.

“The Swiss Government’s support in advancing our novel antiviral DARPin® program is an encouraging signal as we rapidly build upon our strong preclinical data that shows best-in-class potency in neutralizing live virus and recently secured manufacturing capacity,” said Molecular Partners in a statement.

“We have been able to confirm activity in a relevant in vivo model supporting the potential of our unique tri-DARPin® for tackling SARS-CoV-2, as we believe novel therapeutics will be an essential tool for addressing the COVID-19 global pandemic.”

A unique immunotherapeutic. “DARP” proteins are tiny antibody-like particles that can effectively neutralize the COVID-19 virus at ‘“picomolar” concentrations. The fact they can deliver “extremely robust” results at minuscule doses maximizes the number of people that can receive the therapy, if it is shown to be successful. Some other advantages of DARP proteins include:

  1. Low-cost, high yield & at scale. DARP proteins can easily be mass-produced through the relatively simple process of E.coli-based biofermentation, allowing rapid and cheap mass-production of the immunotherapeutic. The Zurich-based firm has already planned to scale up manufacturing for their treatment, in collaboration with Heidelberg-based AGC Biologics, said Molecular Partners.

  2. No off-target effects. Because DARP proteins are so small - about a tenth of the size of an antibody - they don’t trigger the so-called “off-target” immune reactions that are sometimes experienced with conventional monoclonal antibodies.

  3. Stability. DARP proteins can usually last up to several years at 4°C, and Molecular Partners is investigating whether these proteins can be preserved without refrigeration, to serve more people across the globe.

The bottom line. DARP proteins are small, stable and cost-effective therapeutics with potential to effectively treat or even prevent Covid-19 in at-risk populations, filling a much-needed vacuum in existing therapeutics.

Some background on DARP proteins. Currently, there are no DARP protein treatments on the market, though extensive preclinical studies and clinical trials have been undertaken in some 2,000 patients, according to Molecular Partners. Details:

  • Currently, about a dozen DARP proteins are in the pipeline, mainly for cancers and macular degeneration. Five candidates are now in clinical trials.

  • In 2011, Molecular Partners gave an exclusive license for Abicipar - a DARP therapy against age-related macular degeneration - to the Dublin-based Allergan. However, the US FDA rejected it because of its “unfavorable” benefit-risk ratio, after it showed mixed results in a pair of Phase III trials in 2020.

DARP Pipeline.PNG
DARP protein candidates in the R&D pipeline. Source: Molecular Partners.

Molecular Partners Molecular Partners Announces Agreement with Swiss Government, Securing Rights to Purchase Doses of First Anti-COVID-19 DARPin® Program