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It’s important for antibodies to 'control the virus as it evolves': Vir Biotechnology CEO

George Scangos, Vir Biotechnology President and CEO joins Yahoo Finance Live to weigh in on the surge of COVID-19 cases across the U.S. and discuss why it’s crucial to rollout COVID-19 vaccines efficiently.

Video Transcript

- Let's not forget the added efforts here coming through in terms of the therapies for people struggling through COVID as well. We've seen antibody cocktails play a significant role in all of that. And one of the companies pairing up with GlaxoSmithKline on that effort has been Vir Biotech. That company has seen about a 30% boost here year to date for their share prices as they continue to work through antibody-tested treatments. For more on that, we're joined here by Vir Biotechnology President and CEO George Scangos joins us here, alongside Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani.

And George, appreciate you coming on here. You guys mainly have two right now that are working their way through the trial process. Obviously, as I said, a lot of attention on the vaccine side, a lot of excitement there to celebrate. But how important is the progress you guys are making through here and playing your part on treatments for a lot of people as we continue to see cases rise and hospitals deal with that surge?

GEORGE SCANGOS: Yeah, thanks. So first of all, thanks for having me. Happy to be here. Look, the tension recently has certainly been on vaccines, and I think with 95% effective vaccines, that's appropriate. I think we all be grateful that the vaccines work as well as they do. A couple of things to be said, though, that in order for the vaccines to eliminate the infection, we're gonna have to get to herd immunity, which probably means 75% of the people are immune in some way, which probably means vaccinating 80% of the population. I think that will be extremely hard to achieve given the reluctance of a reasonable fraction of the US population to take the vaccine.

The second issue we have to think about is the emergence of all the strains. And I'm sure you've heard about the South African strain, the UK strain. There are other strains that seem to be more infectious that are changing, and they change the way they're seen by the immune system. So the vaccines are likely to still be effective, but maybe not at the 95% level.

So most people who understand pandemics and the way they spread are of the view that we're going to need substantial drugs in addition to the vaccine before we can resume some modicum of life. So we and a number of other people are bringing forward antibodies. Antibodies are molecules that your body makes in response to the infection. They can bind to the virus and prevent the virus from entering and infecting cells. But they're not all the same, right?

And some parts of the virus mutate very readily, and we all know that. All the companies developing the antibodies know that. And so we've taken different approaches to try and reduce the number of strains that would be resistant to an antibody or an antibody cocktail.

- So--

GEORGE SCANGOS: Um, yeah, go ahead.

- So let's delve a little deeper into that, because, to your point, we hear of a number of strains that we have now learned of and sort of the daily headline in hospitalization across the country. And yet, you have a lot more clarity on what's actually been evolving around those who have been hospitalized as a result of this virus from the beginning of March last year to where we are today? How does your antibody treatment help address that specifically? And what are the concerns you have with the kind of spread we're seeing right now?

GEORGE SCANGOS: Well, the spread is very concerning. It seems to be increasing. The new strains clearly are more infectious, so-- and they're spreading. In December, I think about 20% of all of the isolates that were sequenced and therefore characterized were one of the four variants that seem to be increasing in prevalence. There's a UK, the South African variant, there's a mink variant that arose in Denmark after all the minks were infected and then it spread back to humans, and there's another strain that arose in Scotland that looks to be problematic. Tip of the iceberg-- there will be many more.

So it's important that antibodies be able to control not only the virus as it existed a few months ago, but the virus as it evolves. All antibodies recognize a specific part of the virus. And if these new strains change the part of the virus to which the antibodies bind, then those antibodies are no longer effective. And so Lilly, for example, their CEO Dave Ricks said that their antibodies are likely not to work against the South African strain. There are other variants arising that have mutations that are likely to make them resistant, for example, to both of the antibodies in Regeneron's cocktail.

We've taken a different approach. As we look at all of these variant strains, we believe that our antibodies will still be effective against them. That's based on the DNA sequence of the virus. It's also based on some testing that we've done to actually demonstrate that our antibodies retain activity. So we're pretty confident that for all the current variants and hopefully for future variants, our antibodies will retain activity.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Robert--

GEORGE SCANGOS: There's just--

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Anjalee here, quick question about--

GEORGE SCANGOS: Sure.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: --the uptake of these antibody treatments, because it seems like we've heard federal officials pleading with the hospitals to start using antibody treatments, and there's been a sort of a low use even though the ones that have used it say that it's effective. What confidence do you have that you won't run into the same sort of oversupply problem?

GEORGE SCANGOS: Yeah, great, great question, and that's true. The antibodies are not getting used as much as they should. I think there are two factors in that. One is that the data that has been presented so far is relatively small, based on a small number of patients. It wasn't the primary endpoint. And in fact, the major organization for infectious disease physicians has recommended against the use of the antibodies because of the thinness of the data. Let me say I think the antibodies work. I do. But if you're a physician and you don't have to time to, you know, read all the detailed literature, you probably take the recommendation of your society.

So that's one reason, and so there's some skepticism there. And then they have to be administered intravenously, and so there's a reluctance to tie up an infusion suite with an infectious COVID patient for a drug where you don't really believe there's good data for efficacy.

So how do we overcome that? Number one, we need good data, believable data, statistically significant data, done-- that is the primary endpoint of a trial. We'll have that. I think we're the only leading company that has a dose that we can formulate with an IM shot so it looks like a flu shot rather than an IV infusion. So if we do those two things, I think the antibodies will be used much more widely because they do keep people out of the hospital.

- Yeah, and that's-- that's an important point to note there, too. I mean, when we talk about kind of the way that these-- whether it's an antibody cocktail or, you know, the vaccines, whether it's easier to get those out to the public, it's important to note there. But on your point that you might see this potentially, when we talk about mutations, morph into the idea that you're gonna need to get a booster in the future similar to the way that you get a flu vaccine each year, obviously, I imagine a few people in the pharma industry would be looking at that and say, all right, there's a lot of people here to address and a lot of money to be made on that front. So is that something you see, when you factor in the mutations, that that's gonna be the future here, that everyone's gonna have to get one of these shots basically every year moving forward?

GEORGE SCANGOS: It could be. We don't know. I frankly don't think anybody's thinking about it in terms of how much money we're gonna make. There's a pandemic here. So many people are dying. The economic devastation to the country, to the world, is unbelievable. And so I think we and other companies have been working pretty much 24/7 for the whole year of 2020 to try and get treatments and vaccines out as fast as we can, because we can. And I think we have a responsibility to the society to do that. If we succeed, I'm sure there's some money to be made. But frankly, I don't know how much. And it depends on the shape of the pandemic.

If this virus can mutate as rapidly as flu does, and you need a flu shot every year, then we may need some vaccine every year for this. We may-- we'll most certainly need the antibodies. I don't-- I think-- most people are of the view that although it can mutate quite rapidly, it's probably not at the same rate as flu. And so we'll have to see. I think there's a lot of modeling done about what the shape of the pandemic should be--

- Yeah.

GEORGE SCANGOS: --how it would look like six months, a year, or two years from now. But it's all speculation.