EXCLUSIVE: Emory forms partnership with Pfizer for new COVID drugs

Emory University has entered into an agreement with Pfizer to develop new drugs and treatments designed to prevent severe illness from COVID-19, which remains a major health threat in the U.S. and around the globe.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned Tuesday that Emory University’s Schinazi Laboratory, led by researcher Raymond Schinazi, and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer will work together to develop potential antiviral compounds for the treatment of COVID.

Even though COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are much lower than they were during the worst of the pandemic, COVID remains a leading cause of death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,862 deaths were attributed to COVID around the country for the week ending March 8. In the same week in Georgia, 65 died of COVID, according to state Department of Public Health.

Pfizer is the developer of Paxlovid, a game-changing drug in the fight against COVID. It is one of two antiviral pills used to treat COVID and continues to be effective in the face of new variants. Several other early treatments for COVID, including monoclonal antibody drugs given through a vein, are no longer authorized because they are not effective against the newer omicron strains of COVID.

Emory University’s Schinazi Laboratory, led by distinguished researcher Raymond Schinazi. Contributed

Credit: cus

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Credit: cus

In an e-mail to The AJC, Schinazi said as the coronavirus continues to mutate, it’s essential to develop more options to fight the ever-changing virus. He said next-generation antivirals are aimed at building on what has already been developed, evaluating what compounds have worked, and reengineering them to improve performance.

Schinazi said existing antivirals have drawbacks. Paxlovid is not perfect. The antiviral can negatively interact with some common medications and some people experience rebound symptoms.

“Hence there is a need for newer more effective drugs that can be added to our armamentarium,” he said.

He said as part of Emory’s partnership with Pfizer, they will research potential new treatments that could be combined with Paxlovid to boost its effectiveness.

At Emory, at least 11 Emory scientists plus support staff will be involved in this research effort. Schinazi said they are already working on developing potential treatments but it is early in the process.

“The drugs we are developing should work therapeutically on recently infected persons and the very sick, but we also hope they have an impact on long COVID. That will need to be tested,” he said.

Pfizer and BioNTech, a German biotechnology company, collaborated to develop the country’s first authorized COVID vaccine, which became available in the U.S. in late 2020.

Initially, studies showed the Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine was over 90% effective at preventing even mild illness. Over time, the Pfizer vaccine along with other COVID vaccines lost effectiveness at staving off COVID infection but they have continued to protect against severe illness and death.

Emory declined to share the financial details of its partnership with Pfizer. Pfizer’s revenue nearly doubled during the pandemic, soaring to $81.3 billion in 2021 from $41.7 billion in 2020, driven by the COVID vaccine and the antiviral Paxlovid. Last year, the company reported $100.3 billion in revenue.

As part of the collaboration, Pfizer will provide funding to the Schinazi Laboratory and collaborate on research to advance the preclinical development of these compounds. If successful, Pfizer will have the option to exercise exclusive rights to the leading clinical candidates and be solely responsible for further development activities.

Pfizer isn’t the only pharmaceutical company trying to stay ahead of the virus. NanoViricides recently announced it is also working to develop new drugs to treat COVID.

“COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, a devastating effect on patients, communities, and economies throughout the world, and we believe it is vital to continue to invest in promising research that may help mitigate its impact,” said Charlotte Allerton, chief scientific officer for anti-infectives and head of Medicine Design for Pfizer, said in an Emory press release. “We’re pleased to be working with Emory University and the Schinazi Laboratory with the shared goal to bring forth scientific breakthroughs for people in need.”

“At Emory, our scientists are global leaders in the development of innovative, lifesaving treatments, and Dr. Schinazi and his team have the deep experience needed to make breakthroughs in combating the viruses around us today,” said Emory University President Gregory L. Fenves in the press release. “This agreement with Pfizer will put us on a path to potentially help serve COVID-19 patients like never before.”

Schinazi and his team have a long track record in the discovery and development of antiviral agents for treating infectious diseases. His work has identified medications used widely in the treatment of HIV, hepatitis B and C, and COVID-19. Schinazi was involved in research for Lagevrio (formerly molnupiravir), is an antiviral which is authorized but because is less effective than other antivirals and there are concerns about side effects, guidelines the National Institutes of Health only recommend using molnupiravir if Paxlovid or remdesivir aren’t available.

AJC Data specialist Stephanie Lamm contributed to this article.