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Vancouver’s AbCellera Biologics Inc. capped off a blockbuster 2020 by pocketing nearly $200-million in royalty revenue for its COVID-19-fighting antibody co-developed with Eli Lilly & Co.

AbCellera, which became Canada’s most valuable biotechnology company ever after its record-setting initial public offering in December, said Monday it generated US$233-million in revenue and a net profit of US$119-million for 2020. That was up from US$11.6-million revenue and a US$2-million loss in 2019.

Almost all of that bounty was due to its partnership with Eli Lilly, inked last May, which saw the drug giant take to market an antibody-based drug for COVID-19 patients called bamlanivimab. AbCellera received a US$15-million milestone payment from Lilly, plus US$198.3-million in royalties for the sale of doses in 2020.

“AbCellera had a breakthrough year, demonstrating strong growth across every area of the business and the effectiveness of our technology and business model through our discovery of the first monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19,” CEO Carl Hansen said in a statement.

AbCellera isolated the antibody from the blood sample of a recovered COVID-19 patient last spring using its “antibody discovery engine” technology. The platform runs blood samples from a person who has developed immunity to a disease through a credit-card-sized device with hundreds of thousands of tiny chambers. With the help of artificial intelligence, it tests antibodies produced by cells in each chamber simultaneously to determine which have potential to become drugs – a much faster, cheaper process than conventional methods.

The B.C. company, which spun out of the University of British Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Michael Smith Laboratories in 2012, has entered into more than 100 partnerships with 27 different partners to find antibody treatments for a range of ailments. Each deal provides AbCellera with research fees, milestone payments and eventually royalties as molecules advance from the lab to market.

But AbCellera has met with disappointment at home with its first blockbuster drug. Bamlanivimab has been approved for emergency use by regulators in Canada and the U.S., as well as more than a dozen other countries. But despite Health Canada ordering 26,000 doses of the treatment, it has been almost untouched in Canada, as no province has recommended its use as a standard of care. Meanwhile, more than 360,000 patients in the U.S. have been treated with the drug.

That prompted Dr. Hansen to pen an editorial for the Daily Hive website this month expressing frustration that provincial inaction on bamlanivimab “runs contrary to the recommendations made by the world’s foremost regulatory bodies…so many more Canadian patients could and can benefit from antibody therapy if only they could access it. It shouldn’t be this way.”

AbCellera had nearly US$600-million in cash and equivalents at the end of 2020 thanks to a venture capital financing last spring, a US$126-million funding commitment from the federal government and its IPO on Nasdaq, which generated US$556-million in gross proceeds. The company, which had 200 employees at year-end, has said it plans to expand its facilities and hire hundreds of people, mostly in Vancouver.

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