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Takeda, with US headquarters in Cambridge, says it’s working on a coronavirus treatment

‘We will do all that we can’ to combat the threat, says head of Japanese company’s vaccine business

Takeda Pharmaceutical's Cambridge buildingDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff


Takeda Pharmaceutical has joined several other drug companies racing to develop the first approved medicine to treat the new coronavirus.

The drug maker, which is based in Osaka, Japan, and has its US headquarters in Cambridge, said Wednesday that it’s trying to create a medicine that would be made from the plasma of people who developed immunity to the virus because they recovered from the disease or received a yet-to-be approved vaccine for it.

The drug would be geared to high-risk individuals with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, including the elderly and people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease.

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Because a vaccine is widely believed to be at least a year from getting approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Takeda is working with the US government and officials in Singapore, Japan, and several European countries, including Austria, to find patients who have recovered from the disease and are willing to donate blood..

“We hope we could have a product available to patients in need within nine to 18 months, but there are a lot of variables,” said Katie Joyce, a spokeswoman for Takeda’s US operations.

Worldwide, there have been more than 92,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the vast majority of them in China, according to the World Health Organization.

Plasma-derived drugs called hyperimmune globulins have been shown to be effective in the treatment of severe acute viral respiratory infections and may be an option for the virus that causes coronavirus, the company said.

Two high-ranking Takeda executives met with House and Senate members on Capitol Hill Wednesday to discuss the drug company’s efforts. Takeda officials have also been in touch with the White House.

“As a company dedicated to the health and well-being of people around the world, we will do all that we can to address the novel coronavirus threat,” Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda’s vaccine business unit and one of the executives who went to Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “We have identified relevant assets and capabilities across the company and are hopeful that we can expand the treatment options for patients with Covid-19 and the providers caring for them.”

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Venkayya spent more than four years in the administration of President George W. Bush helping to oversee preparations for bioterrorism and biological threats, as well as crafting a national strategy to handle an influenza pandemic.

There are no approved treatments for the novel coronavirus, but several drug makers are scrambling to develop one, including Gilead Sciences, Johnson & Johnson, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and Vir Biotechnology. Gilead, of Foster City, Calif., appears to be furthest along in the process and is testing a possible treatment, remdesivir, in clinical trials.

Takeda is working on a polyclonal hyperimmune globulin for people with Covid-19 and has dubbed the potential treatment TAK-888.

The medicine would contain concentrated antibodies made by patients who recovered from the disease or got a vaccine for it, and those antibodies would target the virus. Takeda said it will initially produce the drug at its plant in Social Circle, Ga., and that the production effort would have no impact on Takeda’s other plasma-derived drugs.

Takeda is one of the drug industry’s leading producers of plasma-derived medicines as a result of its $62 billion acquisition in January 2019 of Shire PLC. Shire, which was headquartered in Ireland but had extensive operations in Massachusetts, had gotten into that specialty through its $32 billion merger with Baxalta in 2016.

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“Plasma-derived therapies are critical, life-saving medicines that thousands of people with rare and complex diseases rely on every day around the world,” said Dr. Chris Morabito, Takeda’s head of research and development for its plasma-derived therapies business unit, who also made the trip to Capitol Hill.

Takeda is also exploring whether any of its other marketed drugs or experimental molecules could treat Covid-19.

Although there are at least 10 known efforts globally to develop a vaccine for coronavirus, none of them are close to being approved.

On Feb. 24, the Cambridge biotech Moderna became the first drug maker to submit an experimental coronavirus vaccine to be tested in clinical trials by the Maryland-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID. The institute plans to begin testing it on 45 people this month, but Moderna’s chief executive, Stephane Bancel, told the Globe last week that he believes that if the medicine wins approval, it would take over a year before it could be deployed.

Takeda has about 5,000 employees in Massachusetts, making it among the biggest drug makers in the state. The company moved its US headquarters last year from Deerfield, Ill., to Cambridge, where it already had operations.

Takeda is the largest pharmaceutical company in Asia and one of the largest in the world, with about 50,000 employees globally.


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Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.