How to prevent another COVID-19? ‘Invest in infrastructure’

By Ben Hargreaves contact

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/Superoke)
(Image: Getty/Superoke)

Related tags: Berkeley Lights, COVID-19, Coronavirus

CEO of Berkeley Lights talks about the company’s work to identify antibodies against COVID-19 and what the long-term picture looks like.

The pharmaceutical industry is currently working at a rapid pace to develop therapeutics and vaccines for the novel coronavirus pandemic, which is seeing vaccines enter the clinic at a rate not previously seen.

Alongside these developments, a number of partnerships are springing up to accelerate the scale up of these potential solutions to the crisis, with companies aiming to produce vaccine doses in the billions​ to support global inoculation.

The hope is to have a vaccine within a year, an aim that researchers have cited as a possibility, though there are doubts whether this is entirely feasible​.

One company that has been involved in identifying antibodies against COVID-19 is Berkeley Lights, which worked in China early into the outbreak to identify therapeutics candidates.

However, when Eric Hobbs (EH​), CEO of the company, spoke to BioPharma-Reporter (BPR​), he stressed that as well as addressing what is in front of us ‘right now’, there also needs to be longer term planning.

As a result, Hobbs spoke on how Berkeley Lights set up a consortium to face down other potential emerging pathogen threats, as well as what else needs to be done to prevent another such pandemic.

BPR: How has Berkeley Lights reacted to the novel coronavirus?

Eric Hobbs
Eric Hobbs, CEO of Berkeley Lights

EH: ​As a company, we're focused on enabling and accelerating the commercialization of biotherapeutics, including antibody-based drugs and cell-based therapies. In regard to COVID-19, we can help to find functionally diverse antibody therapeutic candidates against the disease. We import live cells either from recovering patients or immunized animals. We capture deep phenotypic, functional and genetic information across thousands of cells, which allows us to find these therapeutic candidates. Within 10 hours of starting our automated workflow, we can export these cells to provide them to our customers. We're able to distribute or decentralize the processing of biology to develop solutions against diseases across the world.

Since COVID-19, we've been working with multiple commercial and industrial institutions, all the way across the globe, enabling them to find potentially neutralizing antibodies for COVID-19. For example, COVID-19 breaks out in January in China, and, by February 4, eight immunized animals were police escorted 2,000km across China to get to the closest Berkeley Lights platform to process them and find antibodies, which we then discovered.

We found over 500 antibodies from patient blood samples in less than a day at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In Australia, the University of Queensland is working on a vaccine and we're helping them in a cell line development project to find the cells that produce the most vaccine, so we can help them scale up.

BPR: Why is having a broad pipeline helpful?

EH: ​Well, there's multiple reasons, but one of the one of the biggest reasons is if you have a point mutation in the antigen, the binding site for the antibody, well, then the antibody could become rendered useless.  So, you have to combat viruses in multiple different ways and have a functionally diverse set of antibodies. Also, it's not always clear which antibody candidate is going to be the best therapeutic, and so having a wide variety to choose from gives you more shots on the goal.

BPR: Much focus has been placed on vaccines, could outline the importance of treatments?

EH: ​I think it's generally accepted that a vaccine is not going to be available until, at the earliest, 2021. What do we what do we do in the meantime? Well, that's where treatments come in. You would leverage these antibodies to treat these patients in the meantime, until a vaccine is available. There's so much talk right now about: ‘how do we open back up? How do we return to normal?’ However, the virus hasn't changed and there's no therapeutic yet. So, there's not going to be a return to ‘normal’ until either we can significantly change behaviors or therapeutics become available.

BPR: What is your view of the industry’s reaction?

EH: ​This is a global problem, and I think the industry has never been more open. I think we all understand the gravity of the situation. It's been awesome how the industry has reacted, and I think the level of partnership is very high right now. People are engaging in deals and discussion that are atypical, that's for sure. We're not in typical times.

In the long-term, I think it's important that we ask ourselves the question: ‘how do we make sure this never happens again?’ At Berkeley lights, we started to ask ourselves that question. So, we founded the global emerging pathogen antibody discovery consortium, we call it GEPAD. The purpose of this consortium is to accelerate the discovery of neutralizing antibodies from patient blood samples to find rapid treatments using our platform. When these outbreaks happen, in whichever local area, then we can respond, with access to our platform to find antibodies.

One of the challenges with COVID-19 was that researchers could not get blood out of China to process it at expert centers around the world. Thankfully, Berkeley Lights had systems in China, which were able to help our customers there respond quickly and I believe that should be true globally.

BPR: What can be done to prevent a similar situation occurring again?

EH: ​We do have the technology to find functionally diverse antibody candidates to these emerging diseases and there are lists of the top 100 potential emerging pathogens that could cross from animals into humans. Well, here's an important question: why don't we work on it now? How many trillions of dollars fell out of the stock market when this pandemic happened? Well, it's a lot of money, and it's impacting a lot of investors. Wouldn't it have been cheaper to have the infrastructure in place to be able to respond more rapidly? To have paid for clinical trials against some of these threats in advance, by having antibodies discovered and on the shelf against some of these emerging pathogens. I think we need continued investment to get ahead.

BPR: Do you believe this will happen?

EH: ​I'm hopeful, but it remains to be seen. However, it's easy to forget once you get past some these things. It's easy to say it's a black swan event or it's a once in a lifetime thing. I do not see long-range planning happening at this point. I see people saying: 'Look at what's right in front of us. Let's get to a therapeutic. Let's get to a vaccine.' I don't think a lot of people are talking about investing in infrastructure, which prevents this problem in the future.

Eric Hobbs joined Berkeley Lights in 2013 and rose to the CEO rank in 2017. Before serving as CEO, Eric led Berkeley Lights' Consumable Organization and Operations and designed, developed, and launched multiple product architectures at FormFactor as a senior member of R&D, operations, and marketing organizations.

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