NIH partners with 16 drug companies to speed Covid-19 research

WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health on Friday announced it would launch a sweeping public-private partnership between federal researchers and 16 pharmaceutical companies, aimed at coordinating and accelerating the development of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines.

The partnership, to be known as Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines, or ACTIV, is meant to standardize research between the federally funded researchers and a broad array of drug companies, and prioritize research into drugs and vaccines that are having high near-term potential.

“Now is the time to come together with unassailable objectivity to swiftly advance the development of the most promising vaccine and therapeutic candidates that can help end the COVID-19 global pandemic,” Francis Collins, the NIH director, said in a statement.

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The new collaboration will focus on standardizing the methods and models that researchers are using to test promising Covid-19 compounds. It will also provide researchers access to high-level laboratory facilities and standardize endpoints to ensure different companies and researchers are judging potential medicines by the same criteria.  Finally, it would establish one joint control arm to be shared among all clinical trials, the NIH said in a press release.

The partnership will establish a system to precisely coordinate clinical trials to make sure all trials have adequate capacity and can tailor their populations to “different populations and disease stages.”

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It will also create a steering committee to effectively determine which drugs should be prioritized for further research and which drugs should be deprioritized — effectively, to cull the group of over 100 potential treatments and vaccines, keeping only the most promising.

The announcement comes as drug companies and government researchers around the world scramble to develop cures and vaccines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed roughly 145,000 people worldwide and 33,000 in the U.S. alone.

NIH, the federal government’s roughly $39 biomedical research agency, has already played a prominent role. Tony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — an institute within NIH — has emerged as a key adviser within the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, another institute within NIH, last week launched research projects measuring the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that President Trump has touted as a promising coronavirus treatment. Last week, NIAID and a trio of other institutes announced a separate study aimed at measuring the true rate of coronavirus infection in the U.S. by measuring the number of adults who have coronavirus antibodies but have not displayed symptoms.

Trump made his first visit to the NIH’s campus last month.

The 16 drug companies involved are: AbbVie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb, Evotec, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, KSQ Therapeutics, Eli Lilly, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, Takeda, and Vir Biotechnology.

The partnership will be orchestrated by the Foundation for the NIH, an intermediary that facilitates partnerships between private companies and federal researchers. Some of those partnerships have been scrutinized in recent years. The NIH in 2017 was forced to cancel a partnership with the National Football League aimed at researching concussions, and in 2018 canceled a partnership with beverage manufacturers regarding alcohol’s health impacts, citing undue industry restrictions or influence in both instances. The same year, the NIH declined roughly $200 million in funding from drug manufacturers for opioid addiction research, citing the potential for perceived ethical problems.


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