‘Major’ breakthrough in Covid-19 drug makes UK professors millionaires | Business

Three professors at the University of Southampton school of medicine have this week made a “major breakthrough” in the treatment of coronavirus patients and become paper millionaires at the same time.

Almost two decades ago professors Ratko Djukanovic, Stephen Holgate and Donna Davies discovered that people with asthma and chronic lung disease lacked a protein called interferon beta, which helps fight off the common cold. They worked out that patients’ defences against viral infection could be boosted if the missing protein were replaced.

The academics created a company, Synairgen, to turn their discoveries into treatments. It floated on the stock market in 2004, but a deal with AstraZeneca to treat viral infections in asthmatics fell through, and the shares collapsed.

Fast-forward a few years to the coronavirus pandemic, however, and suddenly any potential therapeutics for breathing difficulties were in high demand.

Richard Marsden, Synairgen’s chief executive, said the company had been deeply involved in a trial using the interferon beta drug to help people with chronic bronchitis or emphysema. “[But] when the coronavirus pandemic emerged, even back in January we realised that we might have an important role to play in defence against this virus,” he said. “So we set about getting a clinical trial set up in February and March in anticipation of the virus coming to the UK, [and] it did. The trial was in place when people started to fill the hospitals up.

Synairgen share price

“It is part of the coronavirus’s strategy to interfere with the immune system and suppress interferon beta, so if we can put it back in, we can have dramatic effect.”

Results of the initial trial, published this week, showed that coronavirus patients in hospital given a special formulation of the professors’ interferon beta drug, called SNG001, delivered directly to their airways via a nebuliser, were two to three times more likely to recover than those given a placebo.

The study of 101 people found that patients were 79% less likely to develop a severe version of the disease and their breathlessness was also “markedly reduced”, the company said.

As soon as the clinical trial results were published, on the morning of 21 July, the shares spiked, and by lunchtime had risen by 540%. Djukanovic, aged 65, a professor of medicine, saw his 0.56% stake in the company jump in value in one day from about £300,000 to £1.6m. The 0.59% stake held by Holgate, 73, a professor of immunopharmacology, rose to £1.7m. It is understood that Davies, aged 67, the third founder and a professor of respiratory cell and molecular biology, holds a similar-sized stake through a separate company.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that China had previously been able to lift. In the UK, the city of Leicester was unable to come out of lockdown because of the development of a new spike of coronavirus cases. Clusters also emerged in Melbourne, requiring a re-imposition of lockdown conditions.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

So far this year Synairgen’s shares have risen by more than 3,000%, to 204p at market close on Friday, valuing the company directors’ combined 2.6% stake at more than £7m.

Marsden, who holds 0.3% of the stock, described the share price reaction as “reasonable”. “It is a major breakthrough in the treatment of hospitalised Covid-19 patients,” he said. “We couldn’t have expected much better [trial] results than these.”

He said coronavirus had caused “financially a massive problem”, with global economies shutting down to slow the transmission of the virus. “If we’re successful then we would help people clinically, but they’d obviously be a very successful commercial product as well.”

He said it was difficult to work out how valuable the drug might be, but it could help restart more normal working conditions. “What is the economic impact of this virus in the world? If a drug is as effective as this data suggests it might be, this drug could be very valuable indeed,” he said. “Everyone uses the word ‘unprecedented’. We need a more powerful word than that.”

Marsden said the three scientists were excited about the economic prospects, but for them the real accolade was “to have been lucky enough to be the academics who have seen their discovery go all the way through to the marketplace”.

Prof Ratko Djukanovic, right, conducting a bronchoscopy in 2015.

Prof Ratko Djukanovic, right, conducting a bronchoscopy in 2015. A drug developed to help people with chronic bronchitis or emphysema, has had promising results on Covid-19 patients. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

“That’s a very long shot,” he said. “[For them] it doesn’t get better than seeing a drug you created treating real patients, and the side-effect of that is you make money … If people are clever and find something useful, they should get rewarded economically,” he said.

Mark Brewer, an analyst at FinnCap, Synairgen’s house broker, said: “Valuing the Covid-19 opportunity is nigh on impossible; however, we upgrade our target price to 360p but recognise this could go substantially higher, based on upcoming discussions with regulators,”

While the founders have made a packet, long-suffering investors in Neil Woodford’s former flagship fund have missed out. Woodford, who was known for taking bets on early-stage medical stocks, had been one of the biggest single investors in Synairgen through his equity income fund. But the administrators sold the fund’s holdings in Synairgen last month for less than £10m, about a quarter of the value of the shares today.

Synairgen, which is still based at Southampton general hospital, is now presenting its findings to medical regulators around the world to seek approval for the next stage in bringing the treatment to market. New drug approval procedures often take months, but governments have promised to speed up the process to get promising coronavirus treatments approved.

Mask wearing European🇩🇰🇬🇧🇪🇺

Very proud of my husband’s efforts!!
He is the CSO of this company. He and has team have worked their socks off over the last 5 months to make this happen.

And the results are stunning! #COVID19 #Synairgen #SNG #clinicaltrials https://t.co/NThZDV1k0O

July 20, 2020

The company has also expanded the trial to patients suffering from milder coronavirus infections at home. “It has surprised us how well it has worked in hospitalised patients,” Marsden said. “Now if we can give it to people early enough they might not ever get near hospital.”

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Synairgen has already ordered the drug manufacturer Rentschler to start producing supplies, with the aim of getting more than a million doses ready for a possible second wave of coronavirus in the winter.

In the future the drug could be given to healthcare workers and vulnerable groups prior to a second wave of Covid-19 or another new virus.

“Imagine if we had done this work five years earlier, this drug could have been stockpiled by governments,” Marsden said. “And, when coronavirus emerged in Wuhan we could have given this to all healthcare workers and anyone exposed on cruise ships or elsewhere.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/24/major-breakthrough-in-covid-19-drug-makes-uk-professors-millionaires