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Vir Biotech Vies for Global Approach to Tackling Infectious Disease

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Vir Biotechnology CEO George Scangos aims to develop new infectious disease drugs that can treat people in the U.S. and other developed countries. But he also wants to make these therapies available to the developing world, where the need is great but the financial means to pay for medicine is scarce.

To accomplish both goals, Scangos is bringing a wide-ranging approach to his San Francisco-based biotech startup. Vir has lined up a slate of partners in the private sector, the nonprofit world, and academia. In doing so, Scangos (pictured above) says Vir can assemble the technologies and the capabilities to make new infectious disease treatments available to anyone in the world who needs them. For example, Scangos says an infectious disease drug developed by Vir could be sold in countries that can afford it; in countries that can’t pay for them, those medicines could be distributed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a Vir investor and partner.

“However many billion people there are in the world, everyone is susceptible to infectious disease and everyone gets sick,” Scangos says in an interview with Xconomy.

When Scangos, the former CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB), emerged as the chief executive of Vir earlier this year, the company had released few details about its approach to infectious disease or its finances. Scangos now says Vir has more than $500 million in financial commitments. Besides the Gates Foundation, backers include ARCH Venture Partners, Altitude Life Science Ventures, and Alta Partners. The company could raise even more. Scangos says the total raised represents the first round so far. The round will close at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Vir has already started deploying its cash. The company has acquired Humabs BioMed, a Switzerland-based company that discovers and develops fully human monoclonal antibodies to treat serious infections. No financial details were disclosed. Vir say Humabs’ proprietary technology enables the rapid isolation and development of antibodies that have passed natural selection by the human immune system in response to viral and bacterial diseases.

Humabs brings to Vir more than 15 antibody candidates, which include pre-clinical compounds that could potentially treat infections from hepatitis B virus, human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), Zika, and Dengue fever.

Vir is also building its pipeline through partnerships with other biotechs. The company is collaborating with Cambridge, MA-based Visterra in a deal that covers up to six antibodies to treat infectious diseases. Vir has the option to partner with Visterra on its mid-stage influenza treatment. The companies will also work together to advance three infectious disease antibodies developed using Visterra technology. Those compounds include potential treatments for flu, RSV, and fungal infections. Vir is making an unspecified upfront payment to Visterra, and will cover development costs of any licensed programs. If those programs reach the market, Vir could pay Visterra up to $1 billion in milestones.

In a separate deal, Vir is working with Alnylam (NASDAQ: ALNY) covering up to five of the Cambridge biotech’s siRNA programs for infectious diseases. Vir is paying Alnylam an undisclosed upfront sum comprised of cash and Vir stock. The two companies will work together on a hepatitis B virus treatment, and Alnylam will develop four other compounds that Vir has the option to license. If the compounds are successful, Vir could pay Alnylam up to $1 billion in milestones.

In the academic world, Vir has licensed artificial intelligence technology from Stanford University that it will use for drug discovery. Vir also has a five-year research alliance with Harvard University to support three research projects, which the company could license. The company has expanded its research relationship with Oregon Health & Science University, one of Vir’s earlier partners. And the company has started a cell therapy-focused research agreement with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Scangos says Vir will eventually discover its own drugs. But in the meantime, the deals give the startup a pipeline of potential medicines to develop right away. And the company is still working on adding more compounds to that pipeline. Scangos says Vir is holding discussions with multiple companies.

“We’re not done doing deals,” he says.

Photo by Vir Biotechnology.