Coronavirus: New COVID-19 drug developed by Saudi Arabian company, US partners

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A Saudi Arabian company is developing a coronavirus preventative drug set to be out next year, in collaboration with American scientists at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

The drug, an antibody injection that binds to the novel coronavirus to neutralize it, can work as short-term prevention, and treatment, for COVID-19.

One dose of the highly specific antibody will prevent someone from getting the novel coronavirus for at least few months, according to Donald Gerson, co-founder of the Saudi Arabian company involved, SaudiVax.

“If the antibody is in your system and the virus comes to you, it will kill it. The drug can stay in the system for few months, working as both prevention and therapy for COVID-19,” said Gerson, who has worked in the vaccine development industry for over 30 years, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

US researchers in the lab in the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Supplied)

US researchers in the lab in the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Supplied)

 

The drug will be the first new COVID-19 treatment available simultaneously in both the US and Middle East.

SaudiVax, the first vaccine biotechnology company in Saudi Arabia, paired up with University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Antibody Therapeutics in February to discover the antibody and has licensed the drug for the Middle East region, according to Gerson.

“We are prepared to begin manufacturing and have a clinical trial lined up. It’s going to happen as fast as humanely possible,” Gerson said.

SaudiVax’s 20-person team is playing an instrumental role in the drug’s industrial development.

The SaudiVax team training on cell culture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. (Supplied)

The SaudiVax team training on cell culture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. (Supplied)

 

The healthcare collaboration came naturally due the network already existing between scientists in the two G20 countries, according to Mazen Hassanain, managing director of SaudiVax and a professor at Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, College of Medicine.

“It’s easy for us to work with American scientists because most of our scientists have been trained in the US, so that helps with the scientific collaboration,” said Hassanain, adding that more than half of the SaudiVax team are graduates of universities in North America.

Saudi Arabia is one of the countries with the most students in the United States, ranking fourth after China, India, and South Korea.

The drug is scheduled to be available in the US and Saudi Arabia at the same time by the end of next year, according to Dr. Hassanain, who said the relationship between the two countries is more collaborative than competitive.

“The drug will be available to the US and MENA region on the same day, for the very first time ever. There is usually a lag between drug registration in the US and the MENA region,” said Dr. Hassanain in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

Saudi Arabia’s emerging vaccine industry

SaudiVax is also in collaboration with another university in Saudi Arabia to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, a breakthrough initiative for the Middle East, where countries have previously not developed their own vaccine industries and remain dependent on outside entities for vaccines, according to former US Science Envoy Dr. Peter Hotez.

“Almost no vaccines are produced in the Middle East from start to finish. That’s a huge vulnerability because there’s so many diseases,” said Dr. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

The vaccine industry in the Middle East lacks development and manufacturing components – the two steps of the vaccine process that follow the initial discovery phase.

But since its inception in 2016, SaudiVax has been trying to strengthen the region’s vaccine development and manufacturing industry.

The groundbreaking of the Saudi Vaccine and Biopharmaceutical Center at Dec 15th 2018 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia on December 15, 2018. (Courtesy: Dr. Mazen Hassanain)

The groundbreaking of the Saudi Vaccine and Biopharmaceutical Center at Dec 15th 2018 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia on December 15, 2018. (Courtesy: Dr. Mazen Hassanain)

 

Dr. Hassanain said SaudiVax is “working very hard to fill the gap,” by building a facility for vaccine development and manufacturing that will likely be fully operational in two years.

Supported by multiple government sectors, the facility is owned by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and is intends to train Saudi scientists to work in the vaccine development and manufacturing sector in the Kingdom.

 

Hassanain said SaudiVax’s mission aligns with the goals of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan, which aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and develop programs to benefit its citizens.

The shared goals between SaudiVax and Saudi Vision 2030 include localizing a new industry, increasing women’s labor force participation, and improving healthcare, according to Hassanain.

“Our team is 60 percent female – very different from all regional pharmaceutical corporations,” said Hassanain.

“And we are aiming to bring about national health security – something the COVID outbreak has made a priority,” he added.

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