Billionaire Bill Gates and his foundation are providing financial support to Durham-based Chimerix, helping it ramp up production of a potential vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus.

Chimerix (Nasdaq: CMRX) has received Food and Drug Administration approval for testing of its antiviral drug candidate called Brincidofovir. The company also recently raised more than $100 million in a stock offering to help fund its research and development activities. An international consortium announced last week that Brincidofovir had been selected for further testing. 

But Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who now spends much of his time working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is stepping in to further help Chimerix. 

“We said to them, ‘well, if money was no constraint, how much could you make?’ and they gave us a number,” Gates told The Associated Press. “So we said, ‘OK, we’ll take the risk that maybe nobody will ever buy this from you. So we’ll help you scale up the manufacturing.'”

Overall, the Gates Foundation is contributing some $5.7 million to help scale up production of the Chimerix drug as well as other candidates seen as having potential to stop the Ebola outbreak. More than 5,000 people have died.

“The Gates Foundation is focusing its R&D investments on treatments, diagnostics and vaccines that we believe could be quickly produced and delivered to those who need them if they demonstrate efficacy in stopping the disease,” said Papa Salif Sow, a senior program officer and infectious diseases doctor with the foundation’s global health program, told Bloomberg news.

The Chimerix support is part of a package created by a coalition of companies and aid groups to test experimental drugs and collect blood plasma from Ebola survivors.

Brincidovir has already been given to a handful of Ebola victims, one of whom died in Dallas, Texas. It was developed to treat other types of viruses and lab tests suggest it might fight Ebola.

Plasma from survivors contains antibodies, substances the immune system makes to fight the virus. Several Ebola patients have received survivor plasma and recovered, but doctors say there is no way to know whether it really helps without a study like the one they are about to start within a month.

More than a dozen companies, universities and others are contributing supplies, staff and cash, and are working with the countries and the World Health Organization on specific procedures and locations.

GlaxoSmithKline (Nasdaq: GSK), which operates its North American headquarters in Research Triangle Park, also is preparing to test a potential Ebola vaccine. 

Besides helping Ebola patients now, plasma “could be a tool for a future epidemic as well” from different viruses, Gates said.

“You might not have drugs and vaccines for some new thing” and it would be good to have capabilities in place to collect and give plasma to fill the gap until those other tools can be developed, he said.

Doctors Without Borders last week also said it would host studies of experimental treatments and plasma at three of its West Africa treatment centers.

Making plasma available is a complex task. Plasma is the clear part of blood, and the part that contains antibodies. In Africa, donors’ blood will be filtered through a machine to remove small amounts of plasma and return the rest of the blood to the donor — a process that allows someone to donate as often as every two weeks.

One of the first patients successfully treated for Ebola in the U.S. — aid worker Dr. Kent Brantly — received plasma from a 14-year-old boy he treated in Africa, where he was infected. Brantly has donated plasma several times to Ebola patients in the U.S.

A plasma recipient must have a compatible blood type as the donor. Survivors who give plasma also must be tested to make sure they are cured of Ebola and don’t have other diseases such as hepatitis, syphilis or HIV. The Africa study will take an added step — use of an experimental system by Cerus Corp. for inactivating viruses in blood.

Dr. Ada Igonoh, a doctor in Nigeria who got Ebola from a patient and recovered, expects to donate plasma and recruit others for the study.

“Survivors will be willing if they understand the goal,” she said.

She and Brantly met with Gates to discuss the project earlier this month at an American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene conference in New Orleans.

Dr. Luciana Borio, who is leading the Food and Drug Administration’s Ebola response, spoke at the conference about plasma. Even though it seemed to help in some cases, “The bottom line is that we don’t really know if it helps and to what degree it might help,” she said.

“We would love to not be in the same situation in the future,” and a study is the only way to know for sure, she said.

Clinical Research Management Inc., a Northeast Ohio company that contracts with sponsors to run clinical trials, will lead the plasma study in Africa. Plasma will be collected through three bloodmobiles donated by another Microsoft co-founder, Paul G. Allen, and the Greenbaum Foundation. The bloodmobiles have been flown to Africa.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) will provide Ebola testing for the study. Several universities will help, as will the Blood Centers of America and the Safe Blood for Africa Foundation. About a dozen companies donated equipment and supplies.



WHO on plasma: