by Giuliana Miglierini
The second phase in the development of new medicines to treat Covid-19 – a part of the EU Strategy on Covid-19 Therapeutics launched in May 2021 – has reached a cornerstone with the announcement made by the European Commission of a first portfolio list of ten potential Covid-19 therapeutic candidates likely to be authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The only medicine authorised up to now at EU-level to treat Covid-19 is remdesivir.
The choice of the molecules to be included in the list was based on independent scientific advice by an expert group, and it is aimed to offer new treatment opportunities for patients affected by the disease in a way complementary to the preventive action of the already available vaccines. The strategy shall contribute to the achievement of the European Health Union, and it has been modelled on the example of the EU Vaccines Strategy.
Once available in the European market, the new medicines are expected to contribute to the reduction of hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19. “We have already signed four joint procurement contracts for different Covid-19 treatments and we stand ready to negotiate more. Our goal is to authorise at least three therapeutics in the coming weeks and possibly two more by the end of the year and help Member States gain access to them as soon as possible.”, said the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides.
Three different categories of therapeutics
The initial list of ten candidates includes three different categories of therapeutics, and it may evolve in future according to the emerging of new scientific evidence.
Antiviral monoclonal antibodies have been identified as the most efficacious approach to be used in the earliest stages of infection. This category includes the following medicinal products under development:
- Ronapreve, a combination of two monocolonal antibodies casirivimab and imdevimab from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Roche.
- Xevudy (sotrovimab) from Vir Biotechnology and GlaxoSmithKline.
- Evusheld, a combination of two monoclonal antibodies tixagevimab and cilgavimab from Astra-Zeneca.
The second category refers to oral antivirals, in this case too for early treatment; it includes the following candidates:
- Molnupiravir from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and MSD.
- PF-07321332 from Pfizer.
- AT-527 from Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche.
Hospitalised patients may also benefit from the use of immunomodulators; four different possible candidates have been selected within this category:
- Actemra (tocilizumab) from Roche Holding.
- Kineret (anakinra) from Swedish Orphan Biovitrum.
- Olumiant (baricitinib) from Eli Lilly.
- Lenzilumab from Humanigen.
The scrutiny and selection of the most promising therapeutic options took into consideration 82 different molecules in late-stage clinical development. The analysis assumed that different types of products are needed for different patient populations and at different stages and severity of the disease. This scrutiny exercise was completely separate from the standard scientific assessment of the regulatory dossiers submitted for the candidates, that will be performed by EMA in order to issue the recommendation for final marketing authorisation by the EU Commission.
Steps towards the approval of the selected candidates
As announced by Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, half of the selected candidate therapeutics may reach approval by EMA by the end of 2021. These include products for which the rolling review is already ongoing or that have applied for marketing authorisation to the European Medicines Agency. Pre-requisite for the approval is the final demonstration of their quality, safety, and efficacy; there is still the possibility some of the products in the list shall not be authorized should the scientific evidence provided to EMA be considered not enough robust to meet the regulatory requirements.
Four other candidates are still in early phase of development and have already received scientific advice from the Agency; their rolling review shall begin as soon as enough clinical data will be available. The further development of these products will benefit by an innovation booster to support development activities.
As said, this is just a first list of promising therapeutics to treat Covid-19; some other approaches are expected to be identified as a consequence of the activation of several new initiatives by the EU Commission. Among these are the setting up of the interactive mapping platform for promising therapeutics which represents one of the first targets of action for the newly created Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) (we wrote about this in October’s newsletter). The Commission also announced the activation within few weeks of the HERA website, where contact details and practical guidance for interested companies shall be found.
A pan-European matchmaking event for therapeutics industrial production has been also announced; this effort will focus on the development of new and repurposed Covid-19 therapeutics and it is aimed to mobilise the EU’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity.
The criteria used to select the candidate therapeutics
The European Commission published also a Q&A note to better explain the process that led to the selection of the ten promising therapeutics to be included in the list.
The portfolio of the selected products (authorised and under development) has been established by the expert sub-group on Covid-19 therapeutics (part of the expert group on SARS-CoV-2 variants) upon request of the Commission. The criteria used to run the analysis were approved by Member States in the Human Pharmaceutical Committee.
They include the evaluation of the pharmacological rationale on the basis of the available evidence of the potential role played by the single medicinal product in the treatment of Covid-19, its stage of development and availability of relevant data from clinical trials, the absence of (new) major identified safety issues, and the ability to answer to unmet clinical need and/or bring therapeutic added value. For some product categories, the efficacy against new SARSCoV-2 variants has been also evaluated.
Other points included in the assessment refer to the route of administration, treatment regimen, and formulation, and the company’s intention to access EMA’s early stage scientific advice procedures. The analysis run by the expert group did not focused on more industrial aspects, i.e. manufacturing, production volumes, prices and access conditions; these will be part of the considerations made by the Commission in order to activate its support instruments.
As for the three different categories of selected products, antiviral monoclonal antibodies are intended to mimic the action of natural antibodies generated by the immune system against coronavirus. They can exert both a curative and a preventive action against the infection, in particular in the earliest stages of the disease. They are usually administered by injection.
Oral antivirals are small molecules aimed to block the activity and replication of the virus. These too are early interventions targeted to prevent damage in tissues and organs and offer the advantage of administration as tablets or capsules, thus favouring compliance. Other plus identified by the expert group are a higher resistance to variants, and the therapeutic action maintained also in vaccinated patients.
Immunomodulators aim to regulate the excessive reaction of the immune systems against the virus, thus preventing the risk of hospitalisation. They represent a symptomatic treatment option for patients at severe stage of progression of the disease despite vaccination and antiviral therapy.