Not too long after they first met at a conference in 2019, Yann Gaston-Mathé and Nathan Collins wanted to come up with a plan to collaborate. Collins heads a lab that makes utilizes an automated chemistry platform to create new pharmaceuticals. Gaston-Mathé runs a startup that employes automated software to aide in the design of new drugs.

There was an obvious synergy between their technology and ours.

Gaston-Mathé – CEO and cofounder of Paris-based Iktos.

Towards the end of last year, the joint effort between the two researchers led to the launching of an all-new antiviral drug that could block specific proteins. The proteins it blocks are understood to be exploited by influenza viruses. Not too long after that, the coronavirus pandemic hit center-stage. Shortly into the course of the pandemic, Collins and Gaston-Mathé learned that SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19′ cause, relies on a protein that was 97 % identical to the influenza protein they were studying.

There are dozens and dozens of biotech outfits that are looking to innovate in the drug-discovery space. These kinds of businesses employ AI tools more often than not. It’s more than likely the case that the first set COVID-19 antiviral drugs will come from scouring over the mountains of data that has been gathered for other drugs. Remdesivir was developed to originally treat Ebola, for example, but it’s also been shown to speed up the recovery of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. A that’s made for condition A, though, usually has limited potency and more side effects than when it’s applied condition B. If researchers in the pharmaceutical industry can engineer a drug that specifically targets SARS-CoV-2, though, the drug would be much more effective and far safer than a drug that was repurposed.

Our goal, with the combination of AI and automation, is to reduce that down to six months or less. We want to get this to be very, very fast.

Nathan Collins – Chief strategy officer at SRI Biosciences

They are not alone. That sentiment is echoed across the biotech industry by small and large firms alike. Several pharmaceutical businesses are accelerating the automated processes provided by AI and supercomputing to aide in the design, prediction, and testing new antiviral medicines. This effort will not only benefit humanity for this pandemic, but also for any we may face in the future.

The entire industry is embracing these too. Not only do we need [new antivirals] to treat the SARS-CoV-2 infection in the population, which is probably here to stay, but we’ll also need them to treat future agents that arrive.

Kara Carter – president of the International Society for Antiviral Research

As of right now, there are only around 200 viruses that are known to infect humans. Since 1980, around two-thirds of human pathogens that have been discovered, yet viruses represent only 14 percent of all known human pathogens.

Antiviral different fundamentally from vaccines in that they directly block a virus that a person is infected with. They are able to do so by binding to and preventing proteins from functioning. This way, the virus can’t reproduce itself. Vaccines, on the other hand, teache a person’s immune system how to defend itself against a viral invader. This ends up greatly enhancing the body’s immune response.

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