Clinical research pharma firm Open Orphan (LSE:ORPH) has announced that it has restarted a commercial human coronavirus challenge study model.
The project had been suspended by its London-based subsidiary hVIVO several years ago on concerns that there was insufficient market demand for the product. That has all changed as the growing spread of the virus has infected over 110,000 people worldwide.
Governments worldwide are ramping up quarantine measures and the medical world is racing to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.
The new study announced on Monday 9 March involves exposing human test subjects to minute doses of variants of the infectious virus in order to closely study its effects in a controlled environment. Scientific and medical staff will introduce common coronavirus strains including OC43 and 229E to volunteer patients. These strains produce only mild cold-like effects, unlike the potentially fatal Covid-19 virus, and so can be safely administered under the close watch of medical professionals.
The results of these tests will help to advance the development of any future coronavirus vaccine much more rapidly than would be possible otherwise.
Open Orphan said it was in early discussions with King & Wood Mallesons, acting on behalf of selected Chinese pharmaceutical and life science clients, to secure funding for the further development of this coronavirus challenge study.
Open Orphan’s merger with hVIVO gave the company the unique opportunity to offer Europe’s only commercial 24-bed quarantine clinic, backed by an on-site virology laboratory.
The clinic is staffed by a medical team which has safely inoculated over 3,000 volunteers.
A previous deal announced on Friday 6 March with a European biotech firm to produce an RSV human challenge study will see £3.2 million in revenue, all realised in 2020, Friel told the market.
Chief executive Cathal Friel told ValueTheMarkets that the merger allowed hVIVO to move forward on a series of deals to advance drug testing into preclinical, Phase I and Phase II trial stages.
“When we acquired hVIVO there was a pipeline of £80 million in deals that were at an advanced stage of negotiations but had not been signed. Last Friday, we were delighted to confirm the first of these with the potential for £10 million in revenue. Today’s announcement is another major milestone in the advancement of our enlarged company.”
The move marked a significant opportunity for newer investors to gain, Friel said. However, he notes that one or two of the legacy hVIVO institutional investors are currently dumping shares:
“Under normal circumstances, our share price would have risen much higher on the two deals, in spite of difficult wider market conditions. What is temporarily holding us back is a number of legacy hVIVO institutional shareholders that we took on when we acquired hVIVO.
“We are doing everything we promised. We said we would transform the company, make transformational deals and eventually reach profitability. We thought these legacy hVIVO institutional shareholders would have given us the benefit of the doubt and embrace our restructuring. Now we have pharma companies from around the world and particularly China knocking on our door, and I think it is sad to see these institutional investors now leave because if they just held on for a couple of months they very likely would be able to exit successfully at a much higher price..”
Friel announced last week he had brought Professor John Oxford back into the business to head up ORPH’s scientific advisory board. In Monday’s release, Prof Oxford noted: “Over the years, I have had extensive experience in dealing with novel and threatening viruses and in 2009 I was the first person, in conjunction with the hVIVO laboratory, to get permission from the government to bring the SARS virus into the country in order to analyse it as part of seeking a solution to the outbreak.
“A couple of years ago, the hVIVO Scientific team started a project to potentially develop a Coronavirus challenge study model but after a certain amount of work and effort they suspended this project because they didn’t see sufficient market demand for a Coronavirus challenge study model.
“However, in recent weeks, the hVIVO scientific team led by their Chief Scientist Andrew Catchpole have reopened their Coronavirus challenge study project and work files. Given the unfortunate circumstances of Covid-19 now spreading around the world they and I felt that there was an obligation on us to reactivate the project and to do our best to now swiftly and effectively make a Coronavirus challenge study model available to the market as soon as possible.”