Coronavirus

Bill and Melinda Gates Back UK A.I. Start-Up Developing Antiviral Drugs to Prevent Pandemics

Yuri Gripas | Reuters
  • Oxford-headquartered Exscientia announced Wednesday that it has signed a four-year deal worth up to $70 million with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • The start-up said it will use part of the funding to try to develop novel antiviral pills that could be used to treat Covid-19 and stop future pandemics from spreading.
  • Exscientia is focusing on developing treatments for Covid-19 and other coronaviruses, as well as influenza and animal-to-human virus Nipah, which can cause respiratory problems.

LONDON – Bill and Melinda Gates have backed a U.K. start-up that's trying to design new drugs with artificial intelligence software.

Oxford-headquartered Exscientia announced Wednesday that it has signed a four-year deal worth up to $70 million with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The start-up, which competes with the likes of BenevolentAI, said it will use part of the funding to try to develop novel antiviral pills that could be used to treat Covid-19 and stop future pandemics from spreading.

Exscientia is focusing on developing treatments for Covid-19 and other coronaviruses, as well as influenza and animal-to-human virus Nipah, which can cause respiratory problems.

"The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic underscores the urgency to develop safe and effective broad-spectrum drugs to expand our armory against viruses and their variants," Exscientia CEO Andrew Hopkins said in a statement.

Exscientia's "small molecule therapeutics" aim to fight the parts of viruses that are least likely to change, allowing scientists to develop treatments that could theoretically take on future viruses.

"Small molecule therapeutics could provide a superior approach to guard global health," said Denise Barrault, director of portfolio management at Exscientia, in a statement.

"Certain targets are prevalent across families of viruses, meaning that potent therapeutics could be broadly effective across multiple virus families. This collaboration will focus on evaluating protein targets that are evolutionarily conserved and are less likely to develop resistance."

While vaccines have provided populations with protection against Covid, there are a limited number of treatments available for patients who have tested positive.

The efficacy of remdesivir, the only antiviral that has been approved for Covid treatment, isn't perfect, and many doctors are relying on medications that alleviate symptoms such as the steroid dexamethasone, or certain antibody treatments.

Exscientia claims that its AI software can reduce the amount of time it takes to discover new drugs by up to 80%.

The firm, which signed a $1.2 billion deal with U.S. pharma firm Bristol Myers Squibb, already has several drugs involved in clinical trials.

Two of the company's drugs, which are designed to treat psychiatric conditions, are being tested in partnership with Japanese drugmaker Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, for example. There's also an oncology drug that Exscientia has developed independently.

The Gates Foundation has taken an undisclosed equity stake in the company in exchange for the investment, which is its second in the company.

Bill and Melinda Gates announced they were splitting up after 27 years of marriage in May, but the pair said they would keep collaborating at the foundation.

In July, the foundation said Melinda will resign as co-chair and trustee if after two years either of the two concludes that they cannot work together as co-chairs.

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