Shanghai Junshi Biosciences has started an early-stage study in China to test a potential antibody treatment against the coronavirus in uninfected people, the company said in a filing on Sunday.
The experimental drug, JS016, is also expected to begin human study in the United States in the second quarter of this year, through collaboration with Eli Lilly and Co.
Junshi is among a few biotech firms and research institutes backed by global pharmaceutical giants to work on antibody-based therapies to help those infected with the fast-spreading new coronavirus, which has killed nearly 400,000 globally.
The company hopes that its antibody, isolated from recovered patients' blood and engineered by researchers, can also protect healthy people with high infection risk, such as medical workers and the elderly, from getting the virus, said Feng Hui, chief operating officer of Junshi.
But the product can be much more expensive than a vaccine, a more commonly used preventive medicine for which multiple candidates are being tested, as Junshi's antibody drug is expected to contain larger amounts of costly proteins in one dose than a vaccine, Feng said.
"Vaccines and antibodies have their own intended consumers and they cannot replace each other," Feng said in an interview with Reuters before the announcement.
"Vaccines are cheap and suitable for nationwide immunization, but older people with relatively weak immunity may not have as robust a response to vaccines as healthy adults and children," Feng said. "Antibodies can better protect those people from the virus."
To make the drug, Junshi has been placing orders with overseas suppliers for materials and items such as specialised vials 12 months prior to delivery, instead of the usual six months, for fear that the virus outbreak would further disrupt logistics and worsen supply chain bottlenecks.
Although further study is needed to determine how much protein to put in one dose, Feng said Junshi's manufacturing capacity and the key supplies they have secured would allow the company to make enough doses to serve 100,000 people "with absolutely no problem" by the end of the year, based on one gram of protein in a shot for one person.
"If supply of materials is sufficient, we expect our annual capacity to ...be able to meet over one million people's demand for treating or preventing virus infection," Feng said.
However, Feng cautioned that it remains uncertain whether they can find enough participants to use the drug in later-stage, larger-scale human tests.