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Will omicron-specific booster shots be more effective at combating COVID-19? 5 questions answered

The FDA’s authorization of the reformulated COVID-19 booster shots represents a major step in the effort to get more Americans boosted.

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In a matter of days, eligible people will be lining up to receive the newly formulated booster shot. filadendron/E+ via Getty Images

On Aug. 31, 2022, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of updated COVID-19 booster shots that are specifically tailored to combat the two most recent and contagious omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5. Following the FDA’s emergency use authorization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to endorse the shots, allowing them to be administered within days.

The new booster shots – one by Moderna and another from Pfizer-BioNTech – come as more than 450 people are still dying of COVID-19 every day in the U.S.

_As of Aug. 31, 2022, only 48.5% of booster-eligible people in the U.S. have received their first booster shot, and just under 34% of those eligible have received their second. These low numbers may in part be influenced by people waiting for the newer versions of the vaccines to provide better protection. But booster shots have proven to be an essential layer of protection against COVID-19.

Prakash Nagarkatti and Mitzi Nagarkatti are immunologists who study infectious disorders and how vaccines trigger different aspects of the immune system to fight infection. They weigh in on how the updated booster shots train the immune system and how protective they might be against COVID-19.

1. What is different about the updated booster shots?

The newly authorized shots are the first updates to the original COVID-19 vaccines that were introduced in late 2020. They use the same mRNA technology as the original vaccines. The key difference between the original COVID-19 shots and the new “bivalent” version is that the latter consists of a mixture of mRNA that encodes the spike proteins of both the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the more recent omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5.

As of late August 2022, the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants are dominant worldwide. In the U.S., currently 89% of COVID-19 infections are caused by BA.5 and 11% are caused by BA.4.

The inability of the original vaccine strains to prevent reinfection and to trigger long-term protective immunity prompted the need for the reformulated vaccines.

The booster shots target the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the omicron variant, as well as the original version of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

2. How does a bivalent vaccine trigger an immune response?

In an actual COVID-19 infection, the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses its protruding spike protein to latch onto human cells and gain entry into cells. The spike protein triggers the production of so-called neutralizing antibodies, which bind to the spike protein and prevent the virus from invading other cells.

But when the virus mutates, as we know that it does, the antibodies that were previously produced in response to the virus can no longer effectively bind to the newly mutated spike protein. In this respect, the SARS-CoV-2 virus acts like a chameleon – a master of disguise – by changing its body configuration and escaping recognition by the immune system.

The ongoing viral mutations are why antibodies produced in response to the original vaccine strains have over time become less effective at fending off infections by new variants.

The concept of bivalent vaccines aimed at protecting against two different strains of a virus is not new. For instance, Cervarix is an FDA-approved bivalent vaccine that provides protection against two different types of human papillomaviruses that cause cancer.

3. How protective will the new shots be against infection?

There are as of yet no human studies on the efficacy of the new bivalent vaccine at preventing reinfections and providing long-term immune protection.

However, in human clinical trials and laboratory studies, both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna found that their initial version of the bivalent vaccine, which was directed against the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and an earlier omicron strain, BA.1, induced a strong immune response and longer protection against both the original strain and the BA.1 variant. In addition, the companies reported that the same early combination generated a significant antibody response against the newest omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, though this antibody response was lower than that seen against subvariant BA.1.

Based on those results, in spring 2022 the FDA rejected the BA.1 bivalent boosters because the agency felt the boosters may fall short of providing sufficient protection against the newest strains, BA.4 and BA.5, which were by then spreading quickly throughout the U.S. and the world. So the FDA asked Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to develop bivalent vaccines specifically targeting BA.4 and BA.5, instead of BA.1.

Because clinical trials are time-consuming, the FDA was willing to consider animal studies and other laboratory findings, such as the ability of antibodies to neutralize the virus, to decide whether to authorize the bivalent boosters.

This decision has stirred up controversy over whether it is appropriate for the FDA to approve a booster without direct human data to support it. However, the FDA has stated that millions of people have safely received the mRNA vaccines – which were originally tested in humans – and that the changes in the mRNA sequences in the vaccines do not affect vaccine safety. Thus, it concluded that the bivalent vaccines are safe and that there is no need to wait for human clinical trials.

It is also noteworthy that influenza vaccines are introduced each year based on prediction of the strain that is likely to be dominant, and such formulations do not undergo new clinical trials.

Based on available evidence from the previous COVID-19 vaccines, we believe it is very likely that the new boosters will continue to offer strong protection from severe COVID-19 leading to hospitalization and death. But whether they will protect against reinfection and breakthrough infections remains to be seen.

4. Will it only be a booster shot?

The bivalent vaccines can only be used as a booster shot at least two months after the completion of the primary series – or initial required shots – or following a previous booster shot. The Moderna bivalent vaccine is authorized for use in people 18 years of age, while the Pfizer bivalent vaccine is authorized for those 12 years of age and older.

Because of the superiority of the bivalent vaccines, the FDA has also removed the use authorization for the original monovalent Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for booster purposes in individuals 18 years of age and older and 12 years of age and older, respectively.

The new bivalent vaccines contain a lower dose of mRNA, and as such are meant to be used only as boosters and not in people who have never received a COVID-19 vaccination.

5. Will the new shots protect against future variants?

How well the bivalent vaccines will perform in the face of new variants that might arise will depend on the nature of future spike protein mutations.

If it is a minor mutation or set of mutations when compared to the original strain or to omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, the new shots will provide good protection. However, if a hypothetical new strain were to possess highly unique mutations in its spike protein, then it’s likely that it could once again dodge immune protection.

On the flip side, the successful development of the updated vaccines demonstrates that the mRNA vaccine technology is nimble and innovative enough that – within a couple of months of the emergence of a new variant – it is now likely possible to develop and distribute new vaccines that are tailor-made to fight an emerging variant.

Prakash Nagarkatti receives funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Mitzi Nagarkatti receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

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Glimpse Of Sanity: Dartmouth Returns Standardized Testing For Admission After Failed Experiment

Glimpse Of Sanity: Dartmouth Returns Standardized Testing For Admission After Failed Experiment

In response to the virus pandemic and nationwide…

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Glimpse Of Sanity: Dartmouth Returns Standardized Testing For Admission After Failed Experiment

In response to the virus pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter riots in the summer of 2020, some elite colleges and universities shredded testing requirements for admission. Several years later, the test-optional admission has yet to produce the promising results for racial and class-based equity that many woke academic institutions wished.

The failure of test-optional admission policies has forced Dartmouth College to reinstate standardized test scores for admission starting next year. This should never have been eliminated, as merit will always prevail. 

"Nearly four years later, having studied the role of testing in our admissions process as well as its value as a predictor of student success at Dartmouth, we are removing the extended pause and reactivating the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admission, effective with the Class of 2029," Dartmouth wrote in a press release Monday morning. 

"For Dartmouth, the evidence supporting our reactivation of a required testing policy is clear. Our bottom line is simple: we believe a standardized testing requirement will improve—not detract from—our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus," the elite college said. 

Who would've thought eliminating standardized tests for admission because a fringe minority said they were instruments of racism and a biased system was ever a good idea? 

Also, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. More from Dartmouth, who commissioned the research: 

They also found that test scores represent an especially valuable tool to identify high-achieving applicants from low and middle-income backgrounds; who are first-generation college-bound; as well as students from urban and rural backgrounds.

All the colleges and universities that quickly adopted test-optional admissions in 2020 experienced a surge in applications. Perhaps the push for test-optional was under the guise of woke equality but was nothing more than protecting the bottom line for these institutions. 

A glimpse of sanity returns to woke schools: Admit qualified kids. Next up is corporate America and all tiers of the US government. 

Tyler Durden Mon, 02/05/2024 - 17:20

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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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