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Scientists partner to develop a new antibody for treating COVID-19. File Photo.
As leading scientists and medical professionals around the world work to develop a cure for COVID-19, KAUST partners in Saudi Arabia are making significant strides toward a solution.
SaudiVax, a biopharmaceutical manufacturing company located in the KAUST Research & Technology Park, recently collaborated with experts at the University of Pittsburgh and Merck France to develop and manufacture a coronavirus preventative drug.
SaudiVax Managing Director, Dr. Mazen Hassanain, discussed the company's research, partnerships, and the future of developments in the Middle East.
KAUST: What is SaudiVax developing to combat COVID-19?
Hassanain: SaudiVax is part of a global team developing a new drug in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The drug is an antibody injection that combines with and neutralizes the virus. It works both as a therapy and prevention.
For those who do not have COVID-19, the antibody offers protection against a potential infection by staying in the human body and responding as soon as the virus enters the bloodstream. For those who do have or have had COVID-19, the antibody neutralizes the circulating virus in their system and stops it from functioning.
In February of 2020, SaudiVax paired with the Center for Antibody Therapeutics within the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pittsburgh to research and license the drug for the Middle East region. We are also utilizing KAUST expertise to advance the project, including working with scientists in the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division. SaudiVax is honored to be a part of this global collaboration.
KAUST: How did the partnership come about?
Hassanain: We began scouting for partners in January 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. We did not think that existing vaccines would work against the virus or be available in time. We decided that the next step would be to move from pure vaccine research to the field of monochrome antibodies.
The collaboration came naturally due to our pre-existing relationships with scientists at the University of Pittsburgh. We wanted to tap the team's knowledge, as they had previously developed three different antibodies for other diseases, including the Hendra virus.
What started as a chat quickly evolved into a much bigger collaboration. We discovered that our interests and goals were very much aligned, with a mutual focus on developing a global solution for COVID-19.
KAUST: What are the next steps needed to market the drug?
Hassanain: The antibody is in the early phases of development, with more steps required to bring this to the world. We signed a contract to commence manufacturing with the biopharmaceutical company Merck France, as Saudi Arabia and other countries in the greater Middle East region (MENA) do not yet have suitable facilities.
When manufacturing starts, we will simultaneously begin clinical trials with people in the United States as well as Saudi Arabia. The drug, scheduled to be available by the end of 2021, will be the first new COVID-19 treatment available to these countries.
Aerial view of the Kaust Research & Technology Park shows infrastructure of buildings and Red Sea location. File Photo.
Hassanain: If you look at any news about disease treatment, prevention or diagnosis, you will see the names of universities featured alongside industry partners. We need universities and technology transfer to succeed. This synergy is essential for achieving collective goals. No matter how strong any one entity is, a lack of collaborative integration limits the ability to make a significant impact. We couldn't have done this without the support of KAUST.
KAUST: How is biopharmaceutical research in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East region advancing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Hassanain: I think people began to realize the importance of biopharmaceuticals and bio-manufacturing in finding solutions to the COVID-19 outbreak and similar situations. To date, the vaccine industry in the Middle East has lacked development and manufacturing components—the two steps of the vaccine process that follow the initial discovery phase. Solutions to COVID-19 and other pressing global health problems are now within our reach.
The groundbreaking of Saudi Vaccine and Biomanufacturing Center at KAUST. Photo by Khulud Muath.