Firm is 'optimistic' over pill it has developed to combat coronavirus

Boss of tiny Oxford firm is ‘extremely optimistic’ over one-a-day pill it has developed to combat coronavirus

  • BerGenBio, a British-Norwegian company has just 38 staff working for them
  • The firm believe they have found the key to combat the coronavirus
  • Chief executive of the company said tests on SARS-Cov-2 ‘showed big effects’
  • It works by stopping the virus from utilising a naturally occurring protein, AXL
  • The small firm is competing with pharmaceutical giants to find a treatment 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

A tiny British company could beat the world’s pharmaceutical giants in the race to defeat Covid-19 after developing a one-a-day pill that is as convenient as aspirin.

Thousands of scientists at the world’s drug giants are battling to find ways of combating coronavirus, but experts at BerGenBio, a British-Norwegian company with just 38 staff, believe they have found the key.

Their bemcentinib drug, originally developed for cancer, defends against coronavirus by stopping it from entering cells and preventing it ‘switching off’ one of the body’s most important antiviral defence mechanisms.

BerGenBio, a British-Norwegian company with just 38 staff, believe they have found the key to combating the coronavirus

Bemcentinib has been fast-tracked to be tried on NHS hospital patients in Government-backed trials, one of only a dozen or so drugs to be picked.

Last night, BerGenBio chief executive Richard Godfrey told The Mail on Sunday that he was ‘extremely optimistic’ the pill would save lives. ‘I think there’s an 80 per cent probability of it working and being of benefit to patients,’ he said.

When US drugs firm Gilead last week announced that tests of its antiviral treatment remdesivir helped patients recover four days earlier from the virus, stock markets in the US and Asia soared.

But the impact on death rates is less clear, with eight per cent of those given it dying, against 11 per cent of those who did not get the drug. The difference was not big enough for scientists to be sure it was having an effect.

But Mr Godfrey said of bemcentinib: ‘I’m expecting something bigger because it’s so different to anything else that’s been tried. We are stopping the virus surviving.’

 When the drug was used in the laboratory on live SARS-Cov-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – it showed ‘some very big effects that dwarf what I’ve seen’ from other drugs, said Mr Godfrey. 

‘So I’m extremely optimistic and think there’s going to be something quite profound [in human trials].’

The offices of BerGenBio in Oxford. The company employs just 38 staff, but has a chance of finding an effective Covid-19 treatment and beating a number of giant pharmaceutical companies to such a discovery

Two-thirds of BerGenBio’s staff are based in Oxford, with the rest in Bergen, Norway.

Mr Godfrey said the drug had been tested on 300 cancer patients, had a good safety record and was relatively easy to manufacture.

It works by stopping the virus from utilising a naturally occurring protein called AXL, which it uses to trick cells to allow it entry. The virus also uses the protein to cut production of interferon, the body’s own antiviral substance.

The drug should stop coronavirus ‘hijacking’ AXL, making it harder for it to replicate and leaving it more vulnerable to the immune system.

The first of the 120 trial patients is due to be given the drug at Southampton General Hospital in the next few days. Results are expected at the end of June.

There is also growing hope that a rheumatoid arthritis drug could help save the lives of the very sickest patients. 

Tocilizumab, made by Swiss giant Roche, works by calming down the immune systems of those who go into ‘overdrive’, which can cause lethal lung damage. 

French doctors said early tests were promising and now an NHS study of tocilizumab is under way. 

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