• Antivirals Discovery Initiative receives NIH Support
    Diamond's beamline 104-1 Experimental Hutch sample changer and sample environment (Credit: Diamond Light Source)
  • Diamond Light Source UK (Credit: Diamond Light Source)

News & Views

Antivirals Discovery Initiative receives NIH Support

Jun 19 2022

“If we had clinic-ready antivirals suitable for SARS-CoV-2 when the pandemic struck in late 2019, we could have perhaps saved millions of lives,” Ben Perry

A bid to discover and develop accessible and affordable oral antivirals to combat outbreaks of COVID-19 and future pandemics has received an initial award of $68 million from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will fund the first three-years of a five-year project to produce preclinical candidates against six viral targets.

A consortium of international scientists will pursue successes achieved by the global, open science COVID Moonshot Project to create an AI-driven Structure-enabled Antiviral Platform (ASAP), built around advanced structural biology, AI and machine learning, as well as computational chemistry on Folding@home—the world’s largest distributed computing platform, to drive robust antiviral discovery.

Solutions must be accessible to all

“If we had clinic-ready antivirals suitable for SARS-CoV-2 when the pandemic struck in late 2019, we could have perhaps saved millions of lives,” said Dr. Ben Perry, Discovery Open Innovation Leader at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) and a founder of the COVID Moonshot. “The world needs a diverse stockpile of novel antiviral compounds that can be quickly mobilised when the next pandemic strikes, and it is essential these be affordable and equitably accessible to everyone.”

DNDi is one of the three institutions leading the Consortium, along with artificial intelligence (AI)-driven biotech PostEra and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

ASAP will be one of the Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as part of the Antiviral Program for Pandemics (APP).

Moonshot Project identifies antivirals

Initiated in March 2020, the COVID Moonshot collaboration rapidly identified potent antivirals targeting the main protease of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which are currently undergoing a preclinical program funded by the Wellcome Trust / COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator. The open science data publicly shared by Moonshot additionally enabled the identification of another promising COVID-19 drug developed by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Shionogi that is now in late-stage clinical trials.  

“The rapid progress of Moonshot demonstrates the power of AI-driven drug design,” said Dr Alpha Lee, Chief Scientific Officer of PostEra and a founder of the COVID Moonshot. “Our algorithms generate molecules with optimised properties that can quickly be made and tested in the lab and help us select the most important experiments. ASAP will take this to the next level.” Dr. Lee is one of the leaders of ASAP.

ASAP partners include the Diamond Light Source (UK); PostEra (USA); the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (USA); the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel); Medchemica (UK); Mount Sinai (USA); Stanford University School of Medicine (USA); the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center (USA) and the DNDi (global), as well as a vast global network of scientists and industry collaborators.

Targeting viral families that have been historically neglected by the market, with an initial focus on coronaviruses (responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic as well as earlier SARS and MERS epidemics), ASAP will aim to address flaviviruses (responsible for large endemic diseases such as Dengue and Zika whose vectors will inevitably come to the United States due to climate change) and picornaviruses (responsible for devastating diseases such as polio).

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