The Indianapolis-Shanghai partnership that could develop an effective COVID-19 remedy

Science & Health
Credit: Li Shengli via Reuters

American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., based in Indianapolis, Indiana, is partnering with Shanghai Junshi Biosciences Co. to develop a remedy for COVID-19, and aims to begin clinical trials of an antibody treatment in the U.S. this quarter.

Junshi is a Shanghai-based, Hong Kong-listed company that says it is “dedicated to the discovery and development of innovative drugs and their clinical research and commercialization on a global scale.”

Lilly says their Chinese counterpart began researching treatments for the coronavirus in January and has engineered multiple neutralizing antibodies.

“We were really scientifically excited about what the data they generate might mean for patients…we saw in the work that the partners in China were doing that there was potential to combine or at least find complementary activities,” says Andrew Adams, Lilly’s chief scientific officer for RNA Therapeutics.

Junshi’s leading treatment under development is JS016, an antibody identified from a patient who had recovered from COVID-19. Adams says Lilly’s scientists “were really impressed” with the potency of JS016, and are poised to begin testing it on American patients.

Antibody treatments like JS016 work through blocking proteins of a virus from binding to human cells, while vaccines induce human bodies to generate immunity. Lilly scientists hope JS016 will function as both a prophylaxis and treatment for COVID-19.

“The data generated by Junshi Biosciences suggest the lead antibody may have appropriate properties to support testing its therapeutic use in patients as well as exploring its potential for preventing infection in at-risk individuals. We look forward to partnering with Junshi Biosciences to quickly begin testing this potential new therapy in clinical trials,” says Dan Skovronsky, president of Lilly Research Laboratories.

Lilly has agreed to pay Junshi $10 million under the partnership, and as much as $245 million more pending successful clinical trials, regulatory approval, and ultimate release of the drugs. Lilly will also pay Junshi double-digit royalties of net sales of any products and buy $75 million of Junshi’s Hong Kong-listed shares.

Adams says JS016 could serve “as a potential way to bridge the gap” until vaccines are approved.

“Because of the speed with which you can develop antibody therapeutics we think that perhaps a once-monthly administered prophylactic or treatment-mode antibody might make a really significant difference in protecting high-risk patients from COVID-19, while we all wait for the vaccines being developed,” Adams says.

Under their agreement, Lilly will be able to exclusively conduct clinical development, manufacturing and distribution of the antibody treatments outside of Greater China, while Junshi maintains all rights within mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Lilly says they, like other companies, are racing to conduct research as quickly as possible with a goal of having antibody therapies for COVID-19 available for use “within months.”