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AstraZeneca strengthens COVID portfolio with RQ Bio deal

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LONDON — AstraZeneca on Tuesday moved to strengthen its COVID-19 portfolio of antibodies with a $157 million licensing deal for experimental therapies being developed by newly launched biotech RQ Bio.

In addition to the initial sum, the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker faces possible royalties under the exclusive license to develop preclinical COVID antibodies developed by RQ Bio, the start-up said. AstraZeneca announced the deal but not its size.

Antibodies include those designed specifically for people with compromised immune systems – such as Evusheld, AstraZeneca’s proprietary antibody cocktail, which has already been approved in several countries.

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The deal gives AstraZeneca the right to develop and sell six antibodies, none of which have been tested in humans, RQ Bio CEO Hugo Fry said in an interview with Reuters.

The antibodies have been shown in laboratory studies to be effective against all known variants, including Omicron, he said.

Access to a fresh crop of COVID antibodies will strengthen AstraZeneca’s COVID portfolio, which is expected to see a rapid decline in COVID vaccine sales in 2022.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker’s vaccine was its second best-seller last year but has struggled to compete with rivals from Pfizer and Moderna, suffering production setbacks, rare side effects and a relatively limited shelf life.

AstraZeneca’s Evusheld — which is designed to prevent symptomatic COVID infections in people unable to get the maximum benefit from vaccines — is expected to partially offset declining vaccine sales.

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It’s been possible for some time to make antibodies – proteins that latch on to thwart both foreign (like viruses and bacteria) and native (like cancer cells) invaders of the body.

However, their use has been limited to relatively niche diseases, such as patients with certain types of cancer, Fry said.

More recently, and particularly in the wake of the COVID crisis, there has been a growing scientific understanding of what antibodies can do and the ability to produce them cheaply and consistently.

“We’re at that tipping point now…where you can use them much more broadly,” Fry said.

RQ Bio hopes to seize this opportunity as scientists expect anti-COVID vaccinations to come back.

The company was founded by scientists who were formerly members of the UK’s COVID antibody task force – and was launched on Tuesday with funding from the AstraZeneca deal. The aim is to produce antibodies for vulnerable people who are at risk of serious illness or death from a range of viral infections. (Reporting by Natalie Grover in London; Twitter @NatalieGrover; Editing by Jason Neely, Louise Heavens and Barbara Lewis)

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