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'We’ve completed the engineering on the medicine': Distributed Bio CEO on coronavirus cure

Distributed Bio CEO Jacob Glanville is actively working on a treatment for COVID-19. He joins Yahoo Finance’s On The Move panel to discuss how the antibodies their team acquired can be effective against the virus.

Video Transcript

HOST: We've been talking about this search for treatments for coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. We're joined by one company that is on that quest right now. Jacob Glanville is the CEO of Distributed Bio. He is joining us now from South San Francisco. Jacob, thank you so much for joining us. And you also were featured in a docuseries that was on Netflix. And I know you've had experience with treatments for SARS, and you're drawing on that now for potential treatments for COVID-19. Talk to me about-- walk me through how that is working and where you are in that process.

JACOB GLANVILLE: Sure, so back in January, it became obvious that the coronavirus outbreak was going to be difficult to contain within China. And our concern was that the small molecule, those pills that people were trying to repurpose might not work, and that vaccines would be 18 months away before we'd have a treatment, which is kind of a scary proposition. So my company specializes in antibody engineering. We do this for 50 different pharmaceutical companies. So we had the right tools.

And what we thought the fastest method would be to make a medicine would be to go back to SARS, which is another coronavirus, and take a series of antibodies that people discovered almost 20 years ago that are great drugs because they go and they blocked the part of the virus that the virus needs to infect your cells, making the virus relatively useless. What we did is we took those antibodies and we applied hundreds of millions of mutations to explore versions of them that could now adapt and recognize the new coronavirus. And we've succeeded in doing so. We have very potent antibodies that can block the new coronavirus in the same spots that they blocked the old SARS.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Hey, it's Adam Shapiro. Sorry, it took me a second there to unmute. I am curious. When you talk about this being over, what, two decades that we've known about this, how quickly can it be put to use now?

JACOB GLANVILLE: Yeah, so there are steps ahead. So what we've completed is the engineering on the medicine. We know these are potent blockers. But we still need to do GMP manufacturer, which is a long and time-consuming process. We're doing everything we can in our power to speed that up. But normally, it takes nine months, but we're trying to work with partners and make that take three months or less. And then after that, you need to do human phase trials. We have every reason to believe this would work, but you need to test it. So you need to take a series of patients and give the medicine to them and see, did it help?

The good news with an antibody, unlike a vaccine, is that you can give it to your patients and, within 20 minutes, it's in their body and it's blocking the virus. So those studies are pretty quick. But those studies do need to happen. So the fastest we can contemplate this being a medicine that everyone could benefit from would be September or later.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Hi, it's Anjalee Khemlani. I'm the health reporter here. I was wondering if you have any insight or any thoughts on the idea that a lot of people are talking about this becoming a seasonal thing. It seems like that's one of the bigger debates in the science community right now. So how do you see this? Because I know you've been paying attention to outbreaks.

JACOB GLANVILLE: Yeah, so realistically, just because it is so infectious and because so many individuals don't exhibit symptoms or mild symptoms, and they can-- although, many people get sick three days after exposure, you can be carrying it silently for 14 days. All of those things combine to make this very difficult to stop. And that leads many of us who perform modeling to believe that this will, eventually, affect the entire population or a large proportion of it. And then whether it becomes seasonal is going to determine by two things-- one is how long immunity lasts after you've been infected, and the second is how much it mutates.

So right now, this looks like it mutates less than flu, which is good news, because it may not-- if it doesn't mutate enough to change enough by the next season, then people who have previous immunity will still be protected. That, we're just going to have to wait and see. Although, right now, I think the realistic assumption is that this will keep burning through this year and potentially into next year until we have a decent medicine.

RICK NEWMAN: Jake, Rick Newman here, what are the risks of speeding testing for something like this? If this got to market too soon, could it actually hurt anybody? And what can the government do to speed this up, if anything?

JACOB GLANVILLE: Right. I love both these questions. So first off, yeah, there's certain steps you do not want to skip. First off, GMP, manufacturer, safety, and talks are critical steps. You need to make sure that a medicine's safe to put in humans. We're working with Charles River Laboratories. They're a 16,000-person CRL that specializes in safety and talks. And they're going to be characterizing our molecules to make sure they're safe.

Then, eventually, we need to go run a phase I/II study. And that's where you give the drug to 400 to 600 individuals, and then you check, first off, is it safe? And antibodies are very well tolerated. These are human antibodies so when you inject them into a person, the body kind of thinks that they made them and ignores them in most cases, but you have to check that. And then, you wait 5 to 10 days to find out, did it help the patients? Did the people who received the medicine end up benefiting?

A phase 1-2 study does speed things up, so these are some of the ways we can help here. That's a technique that's used in the cancer research, where they say, rather than doing a phase one study and then waiting and doing some paperwork and then a phase 2 study and so forth, when you have an urgent need, you can combine those two studies. You bite the bullet, and you pay more money, but you end up having more information faster.

And then after that, there's something called compassionate use or expanded access, and that was used successfully in the Ebola crisis and in some other cases where, when there's no other good medicine and you have good evidence that that medicine works, you can start releasing it before it goes through the full FDA approval process. The things you definitely don't want to skip is the phase I/II study because you need to make sure that, first off, it's safe and second that it actually helps. Otherwise, you're wasting time giving it to patients.

In terms of how the government can help speed this thing up, there were very large grants that have been mobilized and more resources, and this is going to be something where it makes sense to spend more money to speed up the manufacturing process and to pay for the more expensive studies because if you compare the cost of those studies to the cost of the global economy, and the cost of our health and our lives, it's just financially irresponsible to not spend more money faster.

FEMALE SPEAKER: One of the questions has been costs surrounding this. I'm sure you heard about Gilead and their orphan drug rescinding. I'm curious on your thoughts about that as well. How does this play out, as we have in this country been focusing so much on the cost of medication and how that's playing a role for this outbreak?

JACOB GLANVILLE: Yeah, sure, so there's kind of the three categories of medicine. The best would have been something like chloroquine, which was off patent and super cheap, $5 a pill. If that had been effective, that would've been great because it was everywhere, and it was cheap and easily produced.

Vaccines are also relatively inexpensive to produce, so most of what you're paying for is the company's profit margin, but they take a long time to develop. Antibodies cost more than vaccines, but the cost of goods is really around. It could be around $100 or $200 a dose. So when you're paying $8,000 for a dose, all of that overage is really the profits from the company. So I think in a global crisis like this and because you have such a large market of people that potentially use the medicine, I think governments should subsidize producing these medicines at close to cost of goods and distributing them internationally.

HOST: And Jacob, just to be clear here, you guys are a privately owned company. You're not publicly traded, if I'm not mistaken. So what would this do for your profitability, potentially? And is this something you would produce or do you license it out? Are you a manufacturer yourselves?

JACOB GLANVILLE: Yeah, so we're a little bit unique. We never took on venture capital. We were profitable since the beginning. What we do is we engineer antibodies for pharmaceutical companies. We're very good at it, so we've been able to be profitable the whole time. Because we have the tools at our disposal, we're able to make this medicine, and we're exploring various partnerships in order to ensure that the medicine gets out. And we're going to be flexible on what those partnerships look like. We have the molecules in hand. That's what we're very good at. And at that point, we just need to go, what's the best way that we can get this through GMP, get them through safety and talks, and get it into a phase I/II study.

You know, I have grandparents, and I have parents. We all share the same problems that are bigger than economics at this point. And so I think getting it out to more people, in this case, makes more sense than trying to hold the world hostage for a more expensive price because if you don't treat enough people, this thing's going to keep infecting more people.

HOST: Indeed, well, we're all rooting for treatments, and vaccines, and all the rest. Jacob Glanville, thank you so much for joining us. He's the CEO of Distributed Bio joining us from San Francisco.