Today, the partners in Pandemic Antiviral Discovery (PAD) initiative announced grants totalling more than USD 26 million for 14 research projects aimed at facilitating early-stage development of drugs to treat henipavirus infection and disease in humans.

These grants mark the majority of the first investments to come from the PAD initiative, a global philanthropic collaboration launched in 2022 by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, Open Philanthropy, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its purpose is to accelerate the discovery and development of antiviral drugs for future pandemic threats. With equitable access as a core principle of the initiative, PAD is focused on ensuring these interventions are accessible to people in low- and middle-income countries.

“Safe and effective antiviral treatments are a critical tool in responding to infectious disease outbreaks, but medicines to treat COVID-19 weren’t available until late in the pandemic,” said Ken Duncan, Deputy Director of Discovery & Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Preparing for future pandemics means investing in the discovery of lifesaving interventions before viruses of concern escalate into deadly pandemics and ensuring those tools will be readily available to anyone who needs them.”

Viruses with pandemic potential

PAD’s first Request for Proposals (RfP) was issued in March 2022 with a focus on henipaviruses, a subfamily of Paramyxovirus that includes Nipah virus, which has an estimated fatality rate of 40% to 75%. Henipaviruses can be transmitted to humans from small mammals such as fruit bats and cause respiratory illness, often accompanied by severe neurological complications. There is evidence of person-to-person transmission elevating concerns for pandemic potential.

”The current outbreak of a highly lethal Nipah virus in Bangladesh is a timely example of the reasons why the PAD initiative chose to do a first request for proposals to develop new antiviral drugs for henipaviruses,” said Chris Somerville, Senior Program Officer at Open Philanthropy.

To pave the way for the development of such antiviral drugs, greater knowledge of the henipavirus subfamily is needed. “Nipah and Hendra virus give rise to very severe disease with high mortality and pandemic potential, and right now we simply don’t have a good enough understanding of these viruses to effectively fight them,” said Peter Lawætz Andersen, Senior Vice President, Infectious Diseases, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Diverse but complementary in scope

PAD’s Henipavirus Request for Proposals attracted a total of 99 proposals from researchers and research teams across 28 countries. The projects that have been selected for grants cover a broad range of research activities, from exploratory research to identify the molecular determinants for replication and pathogenesis of henipavirus to the development of new tools in support of drug discovery. The projects also include high-throughput screening to search for hit molecules or later-stage optimization and validation of hit molecules for therapeutic development.