UK-based Exscientia has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop small molecule therapeutics that addresses current and future pandemics.

The collaboration will initially focus on developing wide-ranging coronavirus agents, including SARS-CoV-2, its variants, along with the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Under the four-year collaboration, Exscientia will receive a $35m equity investment from the non-profit organisation, through its Strategic Investment Fund (SIF).

SIF leverages financial tools to address market failures and incentivise private enterprises to develop affordable products and services for low-income populations.

Exscientia is expected to make a matching contribution of $35m, through operations and funding for third party activities.

It will lead the initial development and apply its AI-driven platform technology to research, discover, and develop up to five Phase 1-ready small molecule therapeutics.

The company will own the global rights to all developed products with a commitment to make the therapies affordable and accessible to patients in developing countries.

Gates Foundation will also contribute its extensive expertise in funding the design, development, and distribution of antiviral drugs.

The collaboration will be expanded to develop therapeutics for influenza and Paramyxoviridae, along with additional programmes as identified by the joint team.

Exscientia CEO Andrew Hopkins said: “The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic underscores the urgency to develop safe and effective broad-spectrum drugs to expand our armoury against viruses and their variants.

“We need to fight today’s pandemic but also ensure we are prepared with new drugs to combat viruses with future pandemic potential.

“We are honoured to work alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance this mission by ensuring accessibility and affordability of these therapeutics globally.

“We believe that our AI-driven platform can accelerate the creation of better, more effective therapeutics that can address some of the world’s most critical and emerging health risks.”

In July this year, Exscientia has received a grant from the Gates Foundation to optimise a new class of Covid-19 therapeutics using its AI drug design platform.

The programme was focused on a novel class of inhibitors targeting the SARS-CoV-2’s main protease enzyme Mpro, which is the causative agent of Covid-19.

The current collaboration is said to advance the company’s Mpro programme.

The foundation also granted $4.2m funding to Exscientia in 2020 to identify new treatments for malaria and tuberculosis, along with new medicines for non-hormonal contraception.