UK AIM-listed pharma business Open Orphan (LSE:ORPH) announced on 20 February that it is establishing a scientific advisory board populated by world leading scientific experts. The board’s founding chairman is professor John Oxford and he is joined by Open Orphan co-founder Professor Brendan Buckley with further names to be announced in the coming weeks. The committee puts Open Orphan in a prime position to help both vaccine manufacturers and governments around the world in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.
Professor John Oxford is a world leader in viruses including SARS and MERS. He is Emeritus Professor of Virology at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine in London, has published 300 scientific papers, and is the co-author of two industry-standard texts on virology.
Appointing him to the board represents a significant opportunity to drive business to Open Orphan and investors are expecting an uptick in the number of new deals signed, along with an associated lift in revenue.
Professor Oxford has been highly quoted by international news organisations and in recent weeks has been one of the key scientific opinion leaders to appear on media programs in the UK and Ireland. He came to prominence in researching H5N1 avian flu in 1997 and later the SARS epidemic in 2002.
“When I started in virology I could not imagine how emerging viruses like SARS, MERS, Ebola and Zika would come to the attention of the world,” Professor Oxford wrote in a 2017 paper.
Professor Oxford is also the co-founder of hVIVO, which merged with Open Orphan earlier this year. Professor Oxford had had little involvement in hVIVO for the past five years, but in recent months Open Orphan’s executive chairman Cathal Friel and co-founder Professor Brendan Buckley have developed a very close working relationship with him.
Right place, right time
Open Orphan’s Executive Chairman Cathal Friel told ValueTheMarkets that the hVIVO merger “very much came at the right time”, adding: “Governments and pharmaceutical companies have not invested enough into novel vaccines for a long, long time and only now is it finally receiving a great deal of interest. Vaccine development work had been almost like a Cinderella type industry in recent weeks but going forward it is clear that vaccine development is going to be one of the big growth markets in the years ahead.”
Despite their evident expertise and the importance of bringing vaccines to market, scientists have traditionally struggled to attract the kind of capital needed to fully equip virology labs.
Open Orphan possesses the resources necessary to take advantage of this “gap in the market”. The company has access to a 24-bed high-quarantine facility at Queens. This is the only one of its kind in Europe, and is currently being used by pharmaceutical companies to test their vaccines against known viruses.
Traditionally, the clinic has only had a low utilisation of around 30%. However, Friel told investors at a recent shareholder presentation day that he is very optimistic that, given the current Coronavirus outbreak, the clinic will certainly have a much higher utilisation in the weeks and months ahead. The on-site viral laboratory can help companies to quickly and accurately analyse viruses, speeding up the vaccine development lifecycle.
Race against time
The race to find a vaccine for Covid-19 is ramping up, but companies in Europe often do not have access to the equipment, clinics and laboratories they need for testing. And while the virus spreads, the public may not have access to a coronavirus vaccine for 18 months. That means these facilities have become incredibly important to help new vaccine development work.
Dr Anthony Fauci of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases put it like this: “We’re close to starting a phase one trial to determine safety. But that doesn’t mean you have a vaccine. In order to get a vaccine that’s practically deployable for people to use, it’s going to be at least a year to a year and a half at best.”
As of Wednesday 26 February, Italy recorded 52 new infections and Greece was the latest new country to see its first confirmed coronavirus case. While the rate of new infections has been slowing in China, the crisis continued as the country’s health officials reported 406 new cases and 52 associated deaths. According to the Associated Press, the world has now seen over 80,000 confirmed cases with 2,700 fatalities.
Friel says Open Orphan is ideally placed to aid pharmaceutical companies and governments around the world in the search for a vaccine. “We have the skills and expertise that pharmaceuticals companies need. This puts us in a great position. We are also the only company in the world with eight challenge study models. Each of those takes between £5 million and £6 million to make and can take up to five years to develop.”
“Open Orphan in less than 12 months since its IPO is now a full-service niche pharmaceutical services CRO focusing predominantly upon running clinical trials for orphan drug companies and also helping vaccine manufacturers develop their new vaccines. Coronavirus is unfortunately travelling around the world, but as such, companies are now having to spend serious money developing vaccines and we are there to help out with the process.”