Portuguese Covid vaccine stymied through lack of funding

A little like the ‘miracle’ of a repurposed drug to reduce the effects of Covid-19, Portuguese scientific solutions to the pandemic continue to be sidelined by authorities.

Today, Bruno Santos, the co-founder and director of Coimbra biotech Immunethep has railed against the stone wall that has faced the company’s transnasal vaccine since it completed “promising results in pre-clinical trials in animals” (click here).

Last spring, Immunethep was hoping to move on to human trials fairly imminently. Their vaccine, called SILBA, uses inactivated SARS-CoV-2 virus which reduces the probability of new variants being able to escape it.

As Bruno Santos has told Lusa, SILBA is “something we developed to respond to the pandemic. On a world scale, projects that have advanced and are on the market right now, all had State help that allowed them to advance more rapidly than normal. In our case, we haven’t had the injection of capital that would allow this speed. By the middle of last year we had completed all our non-clinical trials, in animals, which showed the (inhalable) vaccine was both effective and safe. Since then we have been waiting for the investment that would allow us to complete the project” (meaning conduct clinical trials and take the product onto the market).

The investment Bruno Santos is talking about is “between €20-30 million” – a drop in the ocean when one considers ‘State investments’ like the latest restructuring package for TAP, for example.

Germany, he adds, invested €300 million in three different companies – one of which was BioNTech, which went on to develop its mRNA technology with Pfizer, which went on to sign multi-billion euro deals with Europe and the wider world.

“We’re talking of 10% of what the German government invested”, he stresses. “And this is an investment that would bring reward” as the deal involves putting up money and then getting it back in the form of the vaccines produced.

Stating the obvious, he said: “Maybe Portugal isn’t ready for this kind of intervention”.

What appears to have happened with this latest ‘home-grown’ innovation is that Immunethep was “put in touch with traditional forms of support, like Portugal 2020, and now the PRR (Plan for Recovery and Resilience) which are very bureaucratic, which take a long time to give approval and which end up not being compatible with the necessary response to a pandemic”.

Just as bad is the fact that this ‘lack of response’ by authorities simply puts a Portuguese biotech company on the ‘back foot’ when it comes to competitors from wealthier, or at least more forward-thinking, countries.

Says Lusa, Bruno Santos still believes his business will be able to complete the development of SILBA. “Obviously not at the speed we had hoped. Other companies, other countries, that had the finance, can already sell their products, and we, if we had had the support, could also be doing this, from Portugal…”

How long it will take for SILBA to get onto pharmacy shelves is anyone’s guess. “At the peak of the pandemic, with emergency use approval, it was possible to get a vaccine authorised in a year. Now, with so many products on the market, we could be talking about a much longer time period”, said Bruno Santos.

A similar brick wall seems to have hit the repurposing solution coming out of ITQB NOVA, the Institute of Chemical and Biological Technology at the New University of Lisbon.

Back in March, geneticist Cecília Arraiano explained how her team had found three compounds (meaning drugs already on the market) that worked against Covid-19, turning it from a ‘wolf to a dog’ (click here)

The pills, created and marketed for other conditions entirely, could be used as early therapies to ‘domesticate’ SARS-CoV-2.

It would be a bit like taking a pill when you have a headache, Dr Arraiano told SIC.

But since then – apart from another flurry of news last summer on the same three compounds, and how ITQB NOVA was bidding for patents in order to then find a pharmaceutical company to take the remedies forwards (click here) – nothing appears to have moved forwards.

natasha.donn@algarveresident.com