As a research-driven biopharmaceutical company, Boehringer Ingelheim is participating in the global fight against COVID-19. The company is contributing its resources and its expertise in support of the research efforts, in order to identify effective treatments for this deadly infectious disease as quickly as possible.
It is late January 2020. The Airbus “Kurt Schumacher” takes off from the military airport Cologne-Wahn, Germany. It is bound for Wuhan in eastern China. A novel lung disease, COVID-19, is spreading in this metropolis. The city is almost completely sealed off by order of the Chinese authorities. The German air force is repatriating hundreds of Germans – including infected individuals – from this hot spot to Frankfurt Airport. In a gym on the airport site, the German Ministry of Health has set up a temporary infirmary equipped with cots and plastic partition walls.
It is not just doctors and nurses who are awaiting the returnees but also scientists, including those from the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) and the University Hospital of Cologne. They take blood samples from the infected persons, examine these samples, and isolate these patients’ immune cells. Boehringer Ingelheim has long maintained a close relationship with the DZIF and is asked for its advice. By working together, the scientists hope to discover and develop antibodies over the next few months that have a neutralizing effect on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In mid-December, their research entered the clinical testing phase; the Phase 1/2a studies include both SARS-CoV-2-uninfected and SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals.
As a research-driven biopharmaceutical company, Boehringer Ingelheim has been fighting against the deadly infectious disease on several different fronts since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic:
Together with the Wellcome Trust and Mastercard, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator in March 2020. Pharmaceutical and life science companies are cooperating with governments, research institutions, and non-governmental organizations in order to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Boehringer Ingelheim is contributing its expertise and has made its substance database available.
Boehringer Ingelheim is also actively engaged in international development initiatives such as the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator and the Corona Accelerated R&D in Europe (CARE) consortium established by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). The company also supports the communiqué initiated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in support of equal global access to therapies and vaccines, since the scientists will only be able to stop the pandemic if global access to new solutions is guaranteed.
In all of its endeavors, Boehringer Ingelheim is working with partners throughout the life science community. Its cooperation with the DZIF is one such example of this. “When Professor Becker asked me after the identification of first antibodies of infected patients whether we would like to jointly pursue antibody research, we didn’t hesitate to come on board,” recalls Knut Elbers, Managing Director of Boehringer Ingelheim’s subsidiary ViraTherapeutics and Senior Advisor to the research initiative Research Beyond Borders. Elbers and Becker, who coordinates the DZIF’s Newly Emerging Infections department, have known each another for many years now. While the DZIF and a team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Florian Klein of the University of Cologne contributed their expertise and equipment in order to extract antibodies from the B cells of infected patients, Boehringer Ingelheim was responsible for further characterization of these antibodies and for the production of promising candidates in the laboratory. That is no coincidence, since Boehringer Ingelheim is considered a leading company in the research, development, and production of monoclonal antibodies and other biological medicines.
“We are advancing these new antibodies with high priority, hoping they can contribute to a broader therapeutic armamentarium for physicians,” says David Wyatt, Group Head of Biotherapeutics Discovery Europe in Biberach and Vienna.
Unlike a vaccine, which takes time until the body’s immune system has produced an appropriate response, neutralizing antibodies are effective immediately once administered. These neutralizing antibodies are immune molecules that attach themselves to viruses and incapacitate them, thus providing immediate protection. They bind to the surface of the virus and prevent it from entering a person’s healthy cells. “Our goal is that patients will be prevented from developing more severe disease, or that these medicines can be used in a preventative setting for high-risk individuals,” says Wyatt.
Although first COVID-19 vaccines have been approved, antibodies are expected to remain important, as it will take time to vaccinate everyone. And while vaccination has a prophylactic effect and prevents an outbreak of the illness, it seems likely that vaccinated individuals can nonetheless pass on the virus. This is because the immune system is most likely not efficient enough to stop the virus from multiplying at the point where it enters the body. “The virus may thus still be able to spread in the population and people who are unable to develop a protective immune response may remain susceptible to falling ill with COVID-19,” Elbers explains. “We require a broad range of tools to tackle COVID-19. Our antibody research is potentially an important contribution to this.”
Boehringer Ingelheim is researching and developing virus-neutralizing antibodies not just in collaboration with the DZIF, but also as part of the CARE (Corona Accelerated R&D in Europe) consortium. This consortium consists of 37 public research institutions and pharmaceutical companies. Together, its members intend to accelerate the development of COVID-19 therapies and thus to prevent future coronavirus threats. As a member of the consortium, Boehringer Ingelheim is sharing its research findings with life science companies as well as governments, non-governmental organizations, multilateral institutions, and others.
Boehringer Ingelheim has also been searching through its products as well as its clinical and preclinical pipeline for substances. The tissue-specific plasminogen activator ACTILYSE® is approved for the use after a stroke to dissolve blood clots in the brain in many countries worldwide. It might be a potential candidate for the treatment of COVID-19 as it may prevent organ failure in seriously ill COVID-19 patients.
“The scientific community is making good progress and we are contributing as best as we can at all levels,” remarks Knut Elbers in summary of Boehringer Ingelheim’s efforts. Cooperation with partners is crucial, according to Elbers. Humanity will only be able to win that fight by working together.
Researchers at the Vienna Bio-Center are achieving results with their RT-LAMP Tests that are similarly specific and significantly less expensive than standard PCR tests. With the PCR test, the viral genetic material is first copied into DNA and then duplicated many times. With the RT-LAMP Test, however, an incubator or a simple water bath with a constant temperature of 63 degrees Celsius suffices. A positive result is already available after 30 minutes. Tests of RT-LAMP with PCR standard analysis have already been performed, and pilot projects for hospitals in selected regions have started.
Research is being carried out by the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP). It employs 200 researchers from 40 countries, and is funded by Boehringer Ingelheim.