Gates Foundation Spearheads $125 Million Drive to Develop a Coronavirus Drug


As part of a $100 million commitment to the global COVID-19 response, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday a collaboration to speed development of treatments for the new coronavirus that has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide -- and killed nearly 4,000.

The Seattle-based foundation's $50 million contribution will be combined with $50 million from Wellcome, a major British health philanthropy, and $25 million from Mastercard's Impact Fund, a philanthropy focused on economic growth.

The efforts to develop a treatment come as 31 new cases emerged at Life Care Center of Kirkland, the nursing home at the middle of an outbreak that had, as of Monday evening, killed at least 22 people in Washington state and sickened more than 160.

Life Care residents who have tested positive remain inside the facility, along with about 20 others whose results have not come back yet. Their symptoms haven't reached a level where they can be taken to a hospital, media liaison Timothy Killian said Monday evening, citing hospital capacity as a factor in determining who can be transferred. Residents who tested negative will be moved to a separate part of the building away from everyone else, Killian said.

Other senior communities have begun to face down the virus. Aegis Living at Marymoor, located in Redmond, announced Monday afternoon that one of its residents tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email sent to families.

Two residents at Issaquah Nursing & Rehabilitation Center who were hospitalized Thursday have presumptive positive results for COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases at the skilled nursing facility to three. And a resident of Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood has tested presumptive positive for COVID-19, according to a statement from the Snohomish Health District.

As officials debated how best to keep the public healthy, the Puget Sound region adjusted to a new normal this week, one where it's polite -- encouraged, even -- to avoid hugs and handshakes, and where entire workforces and schools have gone remote.

Patty Hayes, director of Public Health -- Seattle & King County, outlined potential next steps in the area's effort to slow the spread of the virus at a Seattle City Council meeting and said officials are talking about what to do. She said public health officials are "at the ready" to start ordering involuntary isolation and quarantines and are considering cancellation of major public events.

Hayes shared a Washington State Department of Health chart that outlined five levels of action that officials could take. Gov. Jay Inslee hinted at the ongoing discussions Sunday on the CBS show "Face the Nation," saying the state's response could involve "reducing the number of social activities that are going on."

Although King County's first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced less than two weeks ago, the area's response already has ratcheted through Level 1 and Level 2. Level 3 would involve involuntary isolation of the ill, while level 4 would call for cancellation of major public and large private gatherings, and the closure of schools. Level 5 would restrict nonemergency travel and would call for a guarded line preventing anyone leaving an area infected by the disease.

The region felt sedate after a week of intense and sometimes confusing coronavirus news.

The streets of Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood -- a tech industry hub -- slowed to a gentle hum, devoid of the usual food trucks as Amazon's Seattle workforce largely worked from home. The University of Washington campus emptied out as it held its first day of online-only instruction: buses had plenty of seating, all performances had been canceled at Meany Theater and the campus coffee shop By George shuttered through March 29. And in Olympia, Inslee's office announced the end of public bill signings for the rest of this short legislative session.

The UW's Medical Center NW also took part in efforts to control the new coronavirus: The center opened a drive-through testing clinic for its employees, an attempt to address the shortage of test kits that has plagued patients and medical facilities in their handling of the mysterious illness.

The Gates-funded project, dubbed the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, will identify and test drugs and immunotherapies to fight the virus and alleviate symptoms, while also working to bring the most promising versions to market and ensure they are affordable even for low-income countries.

There are currently no medications approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

"Viruses like [the one that causes] COVID-19 spread rapidly, but the development of vaccines and treatments to stop them moves slowly," Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman said in a statement. "If we want to make the world safe from outbreaks... particularly for those most vulnerable, then we need to find a way to make research and development move faster."

The accelerator aims to provide fast, flexible funding at key stages in the drug development process.

But even working at breakneck pace, it will be at least a year before any existing drugs could be repurposed and approved to treat the virus, the statement cautions. Testing and approval for new medications will take even longer.

The new coronavirus "is an extremely challenging virus, but we've proved that through collaborating across borders we can tackle emerging infectious diseases," said Wellcome director Dr. Jeremy Farrar.

The project will take a three-pronged approach to identifying promising drug candidates: Testing drugs that are already approved to see if they are effective against the virus; screening libraries of thousands of compounds known to be safe; and pursuing studies of new drugs and antibodies.

Dozens of drugs trials are already underway around the world -- including at the University of Washington. Researchers there are part of a large team testing an experimental drug called remdesivir, originally developed to fight Ebola. The drug was given to a Snohomish County man who was the first person in the country diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, and it appeared to help.

UW scientists are also working to isolate antibodies from people infected with the virus, to see if they could be used to treat others.

It's unclear whether any of the new funding will go to either project.

Monday's announcement came on the heels of another Gates giveaway: A project funded by the billionaire and his foundation that will offer home-testing kits to allow people who fear they may be infected to swab their noses and send the samples back for analysis.

As medical workers tried to move forward, the economy stumbled, with news that stocks took their biggest plunge since 2008. Locally, the businesses behind large gatherings continued to try to make sense of COVID-19's ramifications. The publicly overseen Washington State Convention Center has scrapped the shifts of dozens of on-call employees for the rest of the month, saying event cancellations due to the coronavirus outbreak have reduced its staffing needs.

Nonprofits also felt the repercussions. Blood drives across Washington and Oregon have been canceled; about 60% of the region's blood supply comes from those drives, said Curt Bailey, CEO and president of Bloodworks Northwest. (The organization is still accepting blood at its 12 donation centers from Bellingham to Eugene, Oregon.)

In an effort to minimize the spread of the virus, Union Gospel Mission -- known for its work with Seattle's homeless community -- is drastically scaling back its volunteer program starting Tuesday through the end of March. And Temple De Hirsch Sinai on Capitol Hill announced it would temporarily close the overflow homeless women's shelter it operates.

The city of Seattle is opening space in the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall for homeless clients from the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), one of the city's largest shelters, in an effort "to limit potential COVID-19 exposure."

Health care providers said medical supplies were growing scarce, threatening to further stress a system scrambling to control the outbreak. An internal email from a UW Medicine administrator warned of theft and encouraged clinic staffers to move masks away from front desks and unsecured parts of exam rooms "because they have been rapidly disappearing."

Some King County residents were excused from jury duty if they were at particularly high risk for a severe case of COVID-19 -- that is, if they're older than 60 or have chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or lung disease, pregnancy or a weakened immune system.

The outbreak has also put a damper on the days leading up to Tuesday's Washington presidential primary. Not only are the candidates, both of whom are in the high-risk age range, steering clear of Washington, but election night also promises to be quiet. The campaigns of both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders say they're not planning any sort of events or watch parties in Washington. The state Democratic Party isn't holding an event, either.

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