The front line in the fight against coronavirus
In the middle of the fight against the coronavirus, investments in new tools that diagnose infectious diseases are proving invaluable
The European Investment Bank has, in recent years, supported several companies that are now working around the clock to offer big support in the fight against the new coronavirus.
Here are the efforts of two companies – Curetis and Mobidiag.
Mobidiag develops and produces tests and devices for infectious diseases. The European Investment Bank signed two loans with the company, one in 2016 for €15 million under the InnovFin Infectious Diseases Finance Facility and another one, a €25 million quasi-equity deal supported by the European Fund for Strategic Investment, in 2019.
These investments supported the development and production of two diagnostics machines: Novodiag, a small device suitable for conducting on-demand testing, potentially near the point of care, and Amplidiag, a larger machine for high-throughput screening in labs.
Needless to say, Mobidiag, which operates in Finland and France, has turned its full attention to the most pressing diagnostics issue across the world: testing for the coronavirus.
“We need rapid diagnostic tools to detect the novel coronavirus, and we are taking part in that fight, we are already developing our own test,” says Tuomas Tenkanen, the head of of Mobidiag.
The company describes its testing platform as “random access” – meaning that basically anyone, even without training in diagnostics, can operate it. Random access platforms will be increasingly important as countries deploy more and more people to run tests. To operate the Novodiag machine, a person simply uses a pipet to drop a sample into a cartridge, inserts the cartridge into the machine and presses a button to run the test.
“There is a big need to have closed-cartridge systems, where nonskilled people, who know how to protect themselves, are able to run the tests,” Tenkanen said.
Mobidiag is already marketing a test in Europe to detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19 infections. This test was developed by its Chinese partner, Autobio Diagnostics. Antibodies testing is expected to become more important as the coronavirus progresses, because this can detect whether a patient was infected in the past – not only whether the person is currently infected. As studies show that large numbers of people may have had the coronavirus without showing symptoms, testing for antibodies will be crucial to understand the spread of the virus and develop appropriate responses. In the coming weeks, Mobidiag is putting all its efforts into offering a complete solution for coronavirus detection with its Novodiag and Amplidiag coronavirus tests.
“This novel coronavirus situation is very severe. All the companies in our field need to act rapidly,” Tenkanen emphasizes.
Auvo Kaikkonen, a senior life science specialist at the European Investment Bank who has been following the developments at Mobidiag and other companies, says that the field of diagnostics will be a critical part of the fight against pandemics like the coronavirus now and in the future.
“By supporting the development of in-vitro testing platforms and facilities, we have been able to provide a crucial service in Europe in these difficult times,” he says. “We will shortly be moving away from just diagnosing the patients infected with the virus into identifying those people who have already encountered the disease and developed immunity. Such information will be key in making decisions when is it safe to dismantle the current restrictions of movement and isolation.”
Another diagnostics company that has received EIB support is Curetis, a German molecular diagnostics firm. Curetis has developed a medical sample-to-answer platform called Unyvero that offers very fast and accurate testing of different kinds of samples from patients.
“It is very easy to use, takes no more than two minutes hands-on time, and you can drop in any sample type,” says Oliver Schacht, the head of Curetis. This versatility – the ability to integrate respiratory or blood culture samples from joint infections or sputum samples – makes this platform stand out. “You can use any native sample, drop it in, and get it fully automatically processed in a cartridge that’s really a mini molecular diagnostic laboratory,” Schacht says, “and it will read out to you in a single run anywhere from 40 to 130 different parameters, such as bacterial and fungal pathogens and antimicrobial resistance markers.”
All this takes about four to five hours. The company also is developing a smaller, faster version of this platform – allowing up to 30 markers to be read out in just 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the type of sample.
The European Investment Bank signed a €25 million quasi-equity financing agreement with Curetis at the end of 2016, backed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments. When Curetis started on this project, one of the main drivers was identifying the correct antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. This helps doctors avoid treating patients with the wrong antibiotics, which contributes to the spread of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Now, the Curetis platform is proving to be indispensable in the treatment of a large number of coronavirus patients – even though antibiotics do not treat the virus itself.
“More and more we’re going to see critical care patients in intensive care units who got hospitalized because of the coronavirus, and in the serious cases where patients get ventilated, they also very often get a bacterial pneumonia as a co-infection,” Schacht says. He cites recent studies from China showing that up to 50% of all of the deaths connected to the coronavirus were caused by a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia and sepsis.
This secondary infection is related mainly to the use of ventilators. Studies show that ventilators increase the likelihood of bacterial lung infections. This bacterial infection happens because hospitals are hot spots for bacteria, and ventilators make it easy for bacteria to get into the body, leading to what is known as hospital-acquired, or nosocomial, infections. Another factor in these types of infections is the weak immune system. When the body is under enormous stress to fight the coronavirus, for example, it will be more susceptible to other infections.
“The Curetis platform allows testing for all the different bacteria, antibiotic resistance markers and fungi in one go and thus helps the clinicians then to select the right mix of antibiotics to give to those patients,” Schacht says. “Antibiotics, of course, do not work against the virus. They do, however, work – if properly chosen – against bacteria.”
Curetis is also looking at whether it should integrate the test for coronavirus into its pneumonia cartridge. “The WHO and the scientific community have made available the sequencing of the coronavirus to the global R&D players, so we have developed our own coronavirus tests already,” Schacht said. “We are validating these currently in-house, for research-use only.”
Yu Zhang, a manager in innovation finance at the European Investment Bank, says the field of diagnostic tools is just one of many healthcare areas in which the bank invests, and it continues to look for new projects. “We are in intense dialogue with a number of firms that could make a real impact in the fight against Covid-19,” he added, “whether through the development of vaccines or therapeutics, and we are working hard to make sure we can get the financing quickly to the most promising ones.”