The Oxford-based company Exscientia announced on Wednesday it has signed a four-year contract with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The deal is worth more than £50million ($70million) and will help the company develop groundbreaking new drugs against coronavirus and other viral threats. Exscientia has been described as an “artificial intelligence-driven” pharmatech firm on a mission to “radically improve” how new drugs and therapeutics are discovered.
The company’s collaboration with the Gates Foundation will focus in its initial stages on the Covid pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The work will lay down a foundation that will allow the company to later attack other viral threats, such as influenza (flu) and Paramyxoviridae (Nipah).
Andrew Hopkins, Chief Executive Officer of Exscientia, said: “The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgency to develop safe and effective broad-spectrum drugs to expand our armoury against viruses and their variants.
“We need to fight today’s pandemic but also ensure we are prepared with new drugs to combat viruses with future pandemic potential.
“We are honoured to work alongside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to advance this mission by ensuring accessibility and affordability of these therapeutics globally.
“We believe that our AI-driven platform can accelerate the creation of better, more effective therapeutics that can address some of the world’s most critical and emerging health risks.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a non-profit charity established to fight disease, poverty and inequality around the globe.
Earlier this year, Bill and Melinda Gates warned there is no national solution to the crisis that is the Covid pandemic.
As part of the deal with Exscientia, the foundation invested £25million ($35million) into the company, with Exscientia providing the rest.
The equity deal will bankroll five “small molecule therapeutics” that will target the parts of the virus that are frequently changing.
The approach will help the company develop drugs for viruses that could trigger pandemics in the future.
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Scientists have recently warned the risk of a Covid-scale pandemic in the future is higher than previously thought.
Denise Barrault, Director of Portfolio Management at Exscientia, said: “Small molecule therapeutics could provide a superior approach to guard global health.
“Certain targets are prevalent across families of viruses, meaning that potent therapeutics could be broadly effective across multiple virus families.
“Further, this collaboration will focus on evaluating protein targets that are evolutionarily conserved and are less likely to develop resistance.”
Earlier in July, Exscientia received a grant from the Gates Foundation to expedite the “optimization of a new class of COVID-19” drugs.
The Covid drugs were created using Exscientia’s artificial intelligence platform, targetting the coronavirus’s main protease enzyme, Mpro.
And last year, the company was awarded a £3.03million ($4.2million) grant to identify new treatments for malaria and tuberculosis.
The company has offices in England, Scotland, Austria, Japan and the US.