ABC News Corona Virus Health and Science

In race to find a COVID-19 treatment, CEO of tiny biotech company is 'very optimistic'

The drug being developed would only require one pill to be taken daily.

As manufacturers around the world race to find a drug to treat COVID-19, a tiny British-Norwegian company developing a treatment for the illness says it is "very optimistic" for the potential of a new drug that would require a patient to take only one pill a day.

BerGenBio, a biotechnology company that employs just 38 people based in Bergen, Norway, and Oxford, England, has developed a drug called bemcentinib, which is currently in phase two of clinical trials.

Richard Godfrey, the CEO of BerGenBio, told ABC News that he has high hopes that the drug, which was initially developed to treat cancer, will benefit coronavirus patients.

Laboratory studies have also demonstrated antiviral activity against Ebola and the Zika virus, he said, "so we had an inkling already that our drug could potentially work in serious viral infections."

The teams at Oxford and Bergen worked closely with the University of Iowa to evaluate the efficacy of the drug. Bemcentinib works by binding to a protein called AXL tyrosine kinase, which prevents it from activating other processes in the cell.

In doing so, the drug can build the cell's resilience, Godfrey said.

"By inhibiting AXL with our drug, you prevented the virus from getting into the cell," Godfrey told ABC News. "And you also prevented the deactivation of the antiviral immune response that that's critical for our bodies to clear infections … so it's a dual mechanism of action that the virus can hijack. That's really important."

There are dozens of potential COVID-19 treatments in development across the world, and given the unknown nature of the disease, we could see multiple combinations of drugs to be tested in trials, Godfrey said.

What to know about Coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: Coronavirus map
  • "Consistently, we're learning in drug development that it's very rare that there's one magic pill, that there's one drug to treat the disease," Godfrey said. "Normally it's a combination of drugs, whether it's complementary mechanisms or mechanisms that support another. So I think we're going to see combinations emerging, and we already are seeing those being trialed."

    Bemcentinib will be tested on 120 COVID-19 patients in British hospitals, only half of whom are taking bemcentinib in order to allow a head-to-head comparison of its potential benefits.

    "It is, quite simply, just a one-a-day pill that the patients take," Godfrey said. "I'm very, very optimistic for the benefit that our drug will bring to patients."

    Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that bemcentinib will be tested in British hospitals.

    Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.