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(Tribune News Service) — San Diego biotech Sorrento Therapeutics is working with a U.S. Navy research lab to test new coronavirus treatments and tests, according to an announcement from the company on Tuesday.

The deal gives U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3, a laboratory based in Italy, access to several of Sorrento's COVID-19 tests and therapies, which the Navy can use to monitor and treat coronavirus cases at field sites and hospitals throughout Liberia, Nigeria, Djibouti, Egypt and Ghana. There's clear need for such efforts in Africa, with only around 1 percent of the continent's residents fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

It's all part of the research unit's mission, which the Navy says is to "study, monitor, and detect emerging and re-emerging disease threats of military and public health importance." That happens to align with Sorrento's goal of using antibodies, Y-shaped immune proteins that latch onto specific molecules, to spot and treat various diseases, from cancer to autoimmune disorders to the novel coronavirus.

"We're both interested in the commercial aspects of this," said Brian Cooley, Sorrento's senior vice president of drug delivery.

Cooley says the company's agreement with the Navy is initially set to last five years, and that the deal doesn't involve any major payments from either side but is more of a collaboration. The biotech will give the naval lab access to COVI-STIX and COVITRACK, tests that detect proteins from the coronavirus or antibodies made by an immune response to the virus, respectively, information that can tell researchers whether someone is or was previously infected.

Sorrento will also share an experimental antibody it's developing that latches onto the coronavirus to prevent it from entering cells. The company is testing the treatment as an intravenous infusion and a nasal spray, and it plans to make both versions available to the Navy.

The treatment is already in clinical trials, but Sorrento is hopeful that any additional data the Navy generates could help the biotech secure Food and Drug Administrationapproval for the drug's use in the U.S. and other countries, too.

Future phases of the partnership will focus on developing tests that can tell whether someone has COVID-19 or another respiratory infection that causes similar symptoms, adds Cooley. And Sorrento says its vast repository of antibodies could allow it to easily come up with antibody-based diagnostics and treatments to other diseases if the Navy wishes to extend the agreement.

It's not the first time Sorrento has partnered with the Department of Defense. In November, the company was awarded a $34 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a coronavirus treatment that delivers genetic instructions for making virus-blocking antibodies, which a person's own cells would then produce. That work is ongoing.

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Petty Officer 1st Class Ellysan Roe, a hospital corpsman, collects a nasal swab sample from Petty Officer 2nd Class Alec Cervana during coranavirus testing aboard the USS New Orleans while at sea near Japan, Aug. 12, 2020.
Petty Officer 1st Class Ellysan Roe, a hospital corpsman, collects a nasal swab sample from Petty Officer 2nd Class Alec Cervana during coranavirus testing aboard the USS New Orleans while at sea near Japan, Aug. 12, 2020. (Kelby Sanders/U.S. Navy)

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