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How one company is testing vaccines through intentional infection

Open Orphan Executive Chairman Cathal Friel joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how his company is testing vaccines through intentional infection.

Video transcript

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: You're watching "Yahoo Finance Live." I'm Anjalee Khemlani. Welcome to a grand discussion about everything COVID-19. We have on board with us the Executive Chairman of Open Cathal Friel. Cathal, great to see you again. I know there's so much to discuss when it comes to really what's been going on with clinical trials. It's been a very interesting last year and a half, really, to just watch what's been happening with vaccines in the race.

But your company has taken a really interesting approach, which is the human challenge trials. And that's something very few people are really initiated about. So let's start off with talking about why your subsidiary hVIVO is pursuing this and sort of where you stand right now.

CATHAL FRIEL: Yeah, Anjalee, a pleasure to speak. It's quite interesting speaking after the president who's worried about the debt ceiling. But the damage caused by the pandemic is about $17 trillion and rising. And where we are, we're a London Stock Exchange listed company, relatively small. What we're doing, we're helping most of the large vaccine companies in the world.

And every one of them are now spending money to restock the pharmaceutical shelves of vaccines and antivirals. That's a $250 billion annualized market that will happen with immediate effect by 2025. That's the size of the vaccine market. And our company tests vaccines and antivirals, any human challenge. We can do in six weeks what generally takes two years in the field, so really exciting.

The reason we made world news, the British government and ourselves are the only place in the world we actually did this with COVID-19. We deliberately, to find out, we infected a certain number of COVID volunteers, who got real style wild COVID. And we were to monitor and check in secure quarantine, that we do with all our volunteers, test the efficacy and effect of COVID.

And now that allows us to continue with all our little work, which is everything from influenza, RSV, ROV, and HRV. There's only five or six virus in the world that can go pandemic. The view is COVID is cured. Most people believe COVID is conquered. But the other ones are still to be conquered. And that's those. And that's what our work ahead of us.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Right, yeah, I want to get into all the potential. But let's walk back and talk about, because the last time we spoke, you were just getting into the COVID trial. So update us on what really happened. And I understand you're waiting for the data to be published.

CATHAL FRIEL: Absolutely. Look, the reason a lot of our company became world famous, Open Orphan, was that the British government were the first government we had to do anything with ethics approval in the UK. That picture there is a classic one of our volunteers in a quarantine facility in London.

Our history goes back to 1947. After World War II, the Allies and the British government, what killed more Allied soldiers? Was it the opposition, or was it influenza? Influenza, so that's where the Genesis Flu Camp came out of, which is part of our company. So basically, we were commissioned by the British government to take a group of volunteers.

We haven't set the number, a reasonable amount, and test what happens when we deliberately infect them in a challenge trial with COVID. That part of the project is not completed. We're waiting for the data to be published. But needless to say, it was very successful. All volunteers passed through with no major hiccup, no major issue, and there was a huge amount of learnings.

We were able to examine what happens from the moment of infection. It was almost like the moment of inception. Most people present with COVID when they've already been infected. So there's a ton of research now available on that. And that's basically what we do with all our other challenge study trials where we test vaccines and antivirals across a range of infective viruses.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Right. I'm so glad you brought up antivirals, because of course, we know that that's an area that has been sort of understudied throughout this pandemic. We know that, for example, Merck just announced an oral pill. Pfizer's looking at that. Do you see a role for Open Orphan there, as well, when it comes to treatments? Because we haven't really seen much.

CATHAL FRIEL: Absolutely. Look, the beauty of it, Open Orphan, we can try anything that's infective, infective disease. Infectious diseases is about the biggest growth market ever, the new gold rush in pharma, growing the $250 billion annually. But when it comes to those trials, the COVID one, absolutely, our challenge today can try vaccines. But really important, I think it's very, very clear.

Big pharma are rolling out vaccines. But they do need to test antivirals. So we can see the rush one. We know about the Pfizer one. What you need when this vaccine is working, there there's always a small cohort who won't take a vaccine or where it won't work. So when those people get sick, you need the antiviral, something that will kill the virus. A vaccine prevents it. But if you've already caught it, it's too late for the vaccine, so yes there's absolutely.

And the beauty of what we say we do, it would be very hard now to try any product for COVID in the community when it's basically under control. It was quite easy last year in mid-pandemic. Downtown New York, people were dying of COVID. Today you don't see that. So that's where human challenge. We test everything under controlled environment, in secure quarantine facilities in London. We've got three of them.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Certainly. It certainly seems like there's a pathway forward for that. But we'll have to leave it there for now. Thank you, again, Cathal Friel, executive chairman of Open Orphan for joining us today, look forward to speaking again soon.