While research into long COVID-19 is offering clues to causes and potential targets for treatment, defeating this debilitating condition, which impacts millions, requires a team effort—and the effort must include biotech.
”Patients are extremely engaged. There is a strong government commitment, a major National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative, and academic researchers all over the world who are very interested,” says Oved Amitay, CEO of the patient organization Solve M.E. “But there is a need for industry, for biotech, to lead, and for pharma to take an interest, and for all the stakeholders to get involved. That’s really the key.”
To bring biotech into the conversation about long COVID, Solve M.E. and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) are co-organizing an online conference for Feb. 21.
The event is the first of a series of meetings to help drive biotech interest and investment in addressing the unmet needs of long COVID. It will seek to realize benefits and cross-over possibilities from years of existing research on the related conditions of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), dysautonomia, and other immune system disorders.
As Amitay explains, scientists know that many manifestations of long COVID, such as fatigue, brain fog, and memory issues, “seem to be very similar, if not identical to this experience that we call ME/CFS.” Furthermore, research shows that some aspects of long COVID and ME/CFS are brought on by similar mechanisms.
“The trigger for the post-acute disease is a virus or pathogen. It could be in some cases bacteria or other infectious agents, but it has to do much more with the the immune system,” says Amitay. “So it’s not just about what was the trigger; it’s really much more about what was the response, and it is the immune response that in some people just leads to something that is ongoing.”
While ME/CFS was estimated to impact between 1-2.5 million Americans before the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC currently estimates that 6% of American adults, approximately 12.5 million, are currently experiencing long COVID, according to Solve M.E.
“It is estimated that 10-30% of people infected with SARS-CoV-2, including those who were asymptomatic or had a mild disease, will have at least one symptom for more than 3 months” says the organization. “And while most people will recover, researchers anticipate that some patients will have a longer struggle or even a lifetime condition.”
Bringing old research to bear on a new problem
But the quest for treatments is ongoing, and it may benefit from research into post-infection conditions that started in the 1980s, back around the time Solve was founded.
“Our belief is that there is a lot of knowledge that has been gained over the years that could really help unlock the current topic of long COVID—and the other way around: The renewed interest because of long COVID could really potentially help these people who had these diseases prior to COVID,” Amitay says.
Much of the research into long COVID has been backed by the NIH, including the ongoing RECOVER research program. Solve joined several patient organizations and other stakeholders and co-founded the Long COVID Alliance, which successfully advocated for federal research funding. At the end of 2020, NIH received $1.15 billion to study long COVID, Amitay says.
While the current research has explained a lot about how long COVID works, it has not done enough to uncover treatments, which is why “the private sector really needs to get engaged,” according to Amitay. “We’re really looking to see much more private-public collaborations, and certainly biotech and pharma getting into this space,” he says. “There are a lot of specific areas now that could be targeted for therapeutic interventions.”
The series of events organized by BIO and Solve M.E. are intended to accelerate biotech’s involvement in addressing long COVID and to “help the community understand the cutting-edge research, so drug developers can evaluate if their platforms and approaches could potentially be deployed in this direction,” Amitay says.
For example, he says, autoimmune problems and inflammation seem to play a role in long COVID and other post-infection syndromes, and therefore drug development in these areas could be applicable. Recent progress in cancer research could also help address aspects of long COVID.
“A lot of the work that was done to understand the immune system in the past decade was done in the context of oncology,” says Amitay. “So I would argue that even companies that have been working in the cancer space really have a lot of know-how, a lot of tools at their disposal that could be very important to fight long COVID.”
Join the event
The first event in this series takes place online, Feb. 21, from 1-4 p.m. ET. Guests include top health officials in the Biden administration, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), medical experts, and CEOs of biotech companies and patient organizations. Sessions and panels will dig into specific topics like emerging therapeutic approaches and biological targets.
To participate on Feb. 21, click here.
The second event in this series is set to take place live in Boston this June, as part of the BIO International Convention, which runs from June 5-8.
Watch a Solve M.E. video on long COVID