Novartis will seek rapid approval for its Covid-19 drug, developed with biotechnology group Molecular Partners, after strong results from an early-stage trial showed it could help treat the disease.
Ensovibep, an antiviral therapeutic agent, reduced the risk of emergency room visits, hospitalization, or death by 78 percent in a phase-2 trial, compared with a placebo. A single intravenous infusion of the drug reduced viral load over eight days.
Shares in Novartis rose 0.5 percent, while Molecular Partners rose more than a third. Both companies are listed in Switzerland.
In laboratory tests, the drug retained its antiviral activity against all variants of concern, including the Omicron strain. It was safe at all doses tested.
Novartis will exercise an option to license Molecular Partners, which pays SFr150m ($ 163m) and assumes responsibility for development, manufacturing and commercialization.
Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said it had the “potential to be a major new treatment option to combat the rapidly evolving Sars-Cov-2 pandemic”.
Novartis was not a major player in the Covid field, although it did help produce mRNA vaccines through a partnership with BioNTech and Pfizer.
Ensovibep is a so-called multi-specifically designed ankyrin repeat protein, or Darpin, designed to block the parts of the virus that bind to human cells.
New antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck have reported positive results in recent months, but both have potential drawbacks which means some people should not take them.
However, Ensovibep is more difficult to deliver as an oral antiviral drug, and is more comparable to an antibody treatment because it is an infusion. Intravenous drugs were well used during the pandemic, but they should be administered in a timely manner and under medical supervision.
There were concerns that some antibody treatments would not stop against Omicron, which is on the rise worldwide. The variant appears to be less serious, although global health authorities have warned that it should not be classified as milder, as it still has the potential to transcend health systems where vaccine coverage is low.