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Philanthropist donates $172 million to speed up drug development for the next pandemic

Inspired by the record-fast creation of messenger RNA vaccines that blunted the impact of COVID-19, a philanthropist is providing AU$250 million ($172 million) over 20 years to try the same with therapeutics during future pandemic threats. The donation will fund a research center in Melbourne that will develop technologies to quickly create antiviral treatments such as monoclonal antibodies when new infectious diseases emerge.

Geoffrey Cumming, who made a global fortune in oil and gas, as well as solar power investments and management, is putting up what is purportedly the largest ever gift to medical research in Australia to create the Cumming Global Center for Pandemic Therapeutics. Stunned by the economic and political impact of COVID-19, he “wanted to do something to protect the world in the next pandemic,” says James Angus, a former dean of medicine at the University of Melbourne and a friend of Cumming.

Angus introduced Cumming, a Canadian and New Zealand citizen living in Melbourne, to infectious diseases researcher Sharon Lewin, head of the University of Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. Over a series of meetings, Lewin pitched the idea of working on antiviral treatments. “Most people don’t really understand what therapeutics [can do] in a pandemic,” says Lewin, who will head the new center.

A brochure introducing the center claims more than 4 million lives could have been saved if an effective COVID-19 drug had been available in sufficient quantities within 6 months of the start of the pandemic. Yet the $95 billion publicly invested globally in COVID-19 vaccines dwarfs the less than $5 billion spent on developing therapeutics for SARS-CoV-2 during the pandemic’s first year. “What struck me was how quickly we could make vaccines, and how slow we were with antivirals,” Cumming tells Science.

The new center aims to accelerate antiviral creation by focusing on the development of new pharmaceutical tools rather than drugs directly. The goal is “to rapidly adapt antivirals to a new pathogen, along the lines of what CEPI did for vaccines,” says Lewin, referring to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation that funds vaccine R&D.

The center will go beyond the current staple of antivirals, a class of drugs known as small molecules, Lewin says. Three areas of initial focus will be improving monoclonal antibodies that neutralize viruses; targeting viral RNA rather than a pathogen’s proteins; and shoring up the human immune system’s own antiviral actions. The center will partner with industry to commercialize products and will not conduct clinical trials itself.

Cumming’s long-term commitment to the center reflects that developing such platforms takes time. “Twenty years felt right to me,” he says. The money can only support salaries, not facilities. With long-term, stable support, “researchers don’t have to write grants,” Angus says. Cumming’s gift is being supplemented by U.S. $52 million from the Australian state of Victoria, which will also provide a brand-new building. Angus believes other foundations may eventually add to the total. Seventy percent of the funding will support work by Doherty researchers, creating 216 jobs at the institute. The rest will go to scientists at subcenters around the world.

“This is a remarkable opportunity to bring scientists together to focus on prophylaxis and treatment beyond vaccines,” says Raymond Schinazi, an organic chemist at Emory University.

“This kind of funding is an incredible catalyst for biomedical advances,” adds Bruce Walker, an HIV expert at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, a Boston-based center for the development of vaccines for diseases of the immune system that received $100 million in support from entrepreneur and philanthropist Phillip Ragon and his wife, Susan. Another reason for investigating therapeutics, Walker says, is that “the HIV pandemic showed us that creating drugs can succeed where vaccines have failed.”

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