Japan's largest drugmaker working to develop coronavirus treatment

Children wearing face masks seen on a street in Tokyo on March 4, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Takeda Pharmaceutical shares rose after Japan's largest drugmaker disclosed efforts to develop an experimental therapy for the novel coronavirus.

Shares in the company climbed as much as 4.1 per cent. The stock was down 13 per cent this year through Wednesday (March 4), when it announced a goal of making treatment available in 9 to 18 months.

"We will do all that we can to address the novel coronavirus threat," Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda's vaccine business unit and co-head of the response team, said in a statement.

The initiative to develop a plasma-derived therapy takes advantage of a business unit Takeda gained in its US$62 billion (S$86 billion) acquisition of Shire in 2018.

Drugmakers have raced to respond, therapies from Gilead Sciences, Fujifilm Holdings and AbbVie are being tested for treating the pathogen that's sickened over 93,000 and killed more than 3,200 globally.

While pharmaceutical firms respond with swift solutions, the potential payoffs are murky at best as development takes years and by the time a drug is ready, the crisis has often abated, leaving little incentive to carry on with the work.

Takeda's experimental treatment would require plasma from the blood of recovered patients, said the company, which plans on sharing the news with the US government Wednesday. The therapy, which could help strengthen the immune system those still afflicted, leverages the blood plasma unit it acquired through its Shire takeover.

"This plasma-derived therapy is an example of something Takeda could not have done prior to Shire's integration, and demonstrates the company's expanded capabilities thanks to that deal," said Jay Lee, an analyst at Morningstar Investment Management Asia.

Dow Jones Newswires earlier reported that Takeda was developing the treatment.

Takeda said it's working with authorities in Asia, Europe and the US to speed up the research and procure plasma from recovered patients who would have "developed antibodies to the virus that could potentially mitigate severity of illness in COVID-19 patients and possibly prevent it."

Antibody-containing plasma treatment is being tested in China as well. Some analysts pointed out that the potential constraint on plasma supply could be a challenge for this therapy.

"Even if they can demonstrate it works, it's not clear they would be able to manufacture enough of it. You'd have to organise donations from a lot of people, and you'd have to fractionate that blood," said Jefferies analyst Stephen Barker. "It's a lot more complicated than manufacturing almost unlimited quantities of a synthetic antiviral, for example."

Pharmaceutical companies will need to be more proactive about preparing for disease outbreaks as the global population increases and the climate changes, Takeda Chief Executive Officer Christophe Weber told Bloomberg in early February. "Whatever you do, it will always take time to bring a treatment or vaccine," Weber said.

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