Bill Gates-backed accelerator fund grants $20 million for coronavirus research

The confirmed number of coronavirus infections worldwide continues to grow, nearing 800,000 on Tuesday. (AFP)
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Updated 31 March 2020

Bill Gates-backed accelerator fund grants $20 million for coronavirus research

DUBAI: Hopes are being raised that the coronavirus would be understood better and a cure could be developed sooner after three institution were awarded grants by COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a large-scale initiative launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard to speed the development of and access to therapies for the virus.

The $20 million grant to three institutions – the University of Washington, University of Oxford, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology – would fund clinical trials to identify highly potent immunotherapies for the COVID-19 pandemic, the first investments to come from the initiative.

There are currently no broad-spectrum antivirals or immunotherapies available to prevent or treat COVID-19.

“These grants to leading institutions in their fields will advance our understanding of how existing drugs and antibodies can contribute to addressing the pandemic we’re facing around the world,” said Mark Suzman, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“These initial investments through the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator will bring rigor to the study of these potential solutions. The way forward will be informed by sound science and shared data.”

The Accelerator’s initial funding was subsequently beefed after the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative committed $25 million and the UK government committed £40 million last week.

Two of the newly announced trials will fund an investigation of two well-established drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, that have known antiviral properties and have been used to treat malaria and a variety of rheumatological conditions for more than 50 years.

The trials aim to determine whether the drugs are effective as pre- and post-exposure preventive therapy for coronavirus, a statement said.

While these drugs both show initial promise, rigorous scientific evidence is needed to make decisions on how, where and within which populations to use them in this pandemic, it added.

The University of Washington will conduct a multi-site clinical trial in Western Washington and the New York City area, in collaboration with New York University’s School of Medicine, to determine whether hydroxychloroquine can effectively prevent COVID-19 in people already exposed to the infection.

The trial will enroll up to 2,000 asymptomatic men and women who are close contacts of persons with confirmed or pending coronavirus diagnoses.

The Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit meanwhile will lead a placebo-controlled prophylaxis study of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in preventing COVID-19 in at-risk health care workers, frontline staff, and other high-risk groups.

At least 40,000 participants in Asia and Europe will be randomized to receive either chloroquine (East Asian countries), hydroxychloroquine (United Kingdom and Europe), or a matched film-coated placebo as daily prophylaxis for three months.

In addition to funding drug trials, the Accelerator will provide $1.73 million to the La Jolla Institute for Immunology to establish a Coronavirus Immunotherapy Consortium, known as CoVIC.

The effort will bring together scientists from around the world and enable them to share and evaluate candidate antibodies side by side in a blinded, multidisciplinary analysis to identify ideal therapeutic combinations.

Antibody therapies can be used to protect frontline health care workers, contacts, and others who are exposed, as well as treat those who have already become sick.


Mystery Russian projectile raises fears of arms race in space

Updated 25 July 2020

Mystery Russian projectile raises fears of arms race in space

WASHINGTON: The United States this week accused Russia of having tested an anti-satellite weapon in space, a charge Moscow has denied, saying the device was a “special instrument” for inspecting orbiting Russian equipment.
Whatever it was, the incident marks for Washington a rare military escalation in space.
The ability of one satellite to attack another was until now merely theoretical.
The United States, Russia, China and, since 2019, India, have been able to target satellites with Earth-launched projectiles, but these explosions create millions of pieces of debris in orbit, prompting the world powers to refrain from such tests.
This week’s incident may be seen as a message to Washington, which under President Donald Trump is building up a new “Space Force” wing of its military.
Space Force’s commander, General Jay Raymond, on Friday reiterated that “space is a warfighting domain just like air, land and sea.”
In November 2019, Russia launched a satellite named Cosmos 2542. A week later, that satellite surprised observers when it released a sub-satellite, Cosmos 2543, capable of maneuvering in orbit to observe, inspect or spy on other satellites.
This sub-satellite moved close to a US spy satellite, USA-245, and to another Russian satellite. A game of cat and mouse began in orbit, easily observable from Earth by astronomers and the US military, which publicly expressed its concern.
On July 15 at around 0750 GMT, Cosmos 2543 (the sub-satellite with a surface area of less than a square meter, according to the US military), released an object at a high relative speed, around 200 meters per second, said astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
Dubbed “Object E” by the United States, it is still in orbit and appears not to have hit anything. Its size, shape and purpose remain a mystery, but that does nothing to diminish the threat it may pose.
In orbit, satellites speed through the void at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The smallest contact with another object risks smashing a hole in its solar panels or damaging or even destroying it, depending on the size of whatever it may hit.
In space, the difference between a satellite and a weapon is therefore theoretical: whatever its function, “Object E” is a de facto “projectile” and therefore a “weapon,” the US says.
It is the equivalent of a “bullet” in space, said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation.
“There’s no such thing as a fender bender up there.”
Moscow has implicitly admitted as much by accusing Washington and London of having satellite inspection or repair programs that can be used as “counter-satellite weapons.”
The United States has maneuverable military satellites in orbit which can launch smaller satellites.
But it’s unclear if the US has the capability to launch high-speed projectiles as the Russians have just done, said Brian Weeden, a space security expert at the Secure World Foundation in Washington.
“But they probably could if they wanted to,” he told AFP.
“Russia may be trying to send a strategic message about the vulnerability of US systems,” Weeden said. Spy satellites are enormous, extremely costly and rare.
Russia is far less dependent upon satellites than the United States, and its satellites are much less expensive, he said.
That was echoed by the Space Force commander on Friday, who noted that ever since the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the entire US military, from war planes to infantry, depend on space-based technology for navigation, communications and intelligence.
“There’s nothing we do... that doesn’t have space enabled in it every step of the way,” the general said.
The United States and Russia will have the chance to hold direct talks next week in Vienna, during their first meeting on space security since 2013.