Pharmaceutical industry in no hurry to create Covid-19 vaccine

US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Increasingly, pharmaceutical giants, including Swiss companies, are ignoring new infectious diseases of the usual scale and instead are focusing their entire business on profitable, super-expensive areas, such as, for example, cancer treatment. And this is welcome, but the profit maximization strategy alone weakens our overall fight against epidemics such as the new coronavirus infection. Bold small entrepreneurs and companies have to close this gap through public-private partnerships.

Switzerland hosts the headquarters of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. However, the fight against coronavirus? For them, this is not a very interesting field of activity. So far, no Swiss company is included in the list of companies offering innovative methods of vaccination and therapy compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO). And not one of the major pharmaceutical companies located in Switzerland plans to specifically research the virus or invest individual resources in vaccine development.

Bernard Pécoul is the CEO of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative DnDi, a Geneva-based nonprofit organization. This situation does not surprise him. “Many large pharmaceutical companies have completely abandoned work in the field of infectious diseases. This is currently a serious problem, and the coronavirus epidemic, whose end is not visible, once again indicates this circumstance, ”B. Pekul pointed out in an interview with SWI

Since its founding in 2003, the DnDi initiative has been striving how it can invest in the fight against diseases that are hardly a priority for the large pharmaceutical industry. This structure is developing new methods of therapy and testing non-standard financing models in order to provide the necessary means to all those who are “forgotten by the powerful pharmaceutical industry”. She recently launched a program to combat sleeping sickness, which threatens millions of people in Africa.

Forgotten by the big industry

But the resources of structures such as this are insignificant, especially compared to the billions available to leading pharmaceutical companies. And these billions are mostly invested in research on cancer and other rare genetic defects. Investing in other infectious diseases besides HIV, malaria and tuberculosis is almost an exception.

The latest data from the Access to Medicine Index, a ranking analytical system that examines the work of pharmaceutical companies in terms of supplying the most needed and necessary medicines, for example, shows that almost half of the research projects of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies of the world are aimed at combating cancer, while any projects in the field of combating the family of coronaviruses, in particular, pathogens such as MERS-Cov and SARS-Cov, were not about uschestvlyalis.

Novartis generally sold its vaccine manufacturing business to the British pharmaceutical company GSK in 2014, desperate, after many years of financial loss, to make this business profitable. Therefore, this Swiss company no longer has the necessary virological expertise, and none of its laboratories are working on antiviral drugs or appropriate diagnostic methods.

As a result, four large companies today control the vaccine manufacturing business, accounting for about 80% of the market, which is equivalent to an annual turnover of $ 43 billion. “These companies concentrate on the markets that generate the most profit,” says B. Pekul. “Oncology and the treatment of extremely rare diseases are the most beneficial today.”

Less investment, different priorities

A structure called Policy Cures Research monitors trends in the pharmaceutical industry around the world. This Australian think tank, located in Sydney, specializes mainly in constantly recurring infectious diseases. Preliminary results of the report, which will be published this year, show that in 2016, funding for projects related to counteracting the crown pathogens (with an emphasis on the Mers group, but including only Sars) amounted to about $ 27 million, increasing to 50 million US dollars in the next 2017, significantly declining (to 36 million dollars) in 2018.

This figure is much lower than the level of funding for projects to combat diseases such as Ebola and Zika. “It is significant that during this period of time, private businesses, if they invested in the fight against coronaviruses, have absolutely minimal resources,” said Paul Barnsley, senior analyst at Policy Cures Research. He explains that such investments will largely depend on whether there will be serious epidemics and whether it is possible to conduct the necessary clinical trials. “The fact that during the period covered by our data, so little was done regarding the fight against coronavirus, can partially be explained by the lack of opportunities for conducting full-fledged clinical trials,” says P. Barnsley.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of consulting and research firm Medicines Law & Policy, says that “pharmaceutical companies do not always align their priorities with global health priorities.” A certified lawyer and lawyer who worked at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and at WHO explains that shareholders are accustomed to large and guaranteed profits and that these profits cannot be made from working in the field of “ordinary” diseases.

However, for many pharmaceutical companies this explanation is frankly one-sided. They say that in shaping their investment strategy, they by no means forget the truly global problems. Cancer, for example, is the second most common cause of death in the world. There is something to be done in the field of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, which is affecting more and more people around the world.

Harald Nusser, head of Novartis Social Business, explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020 that “based on their experience and resources, companies need to prioritize each time, determining which diseases are best they fight and how? According to him, the Novartis company, for example, focuses on tropical diseases such as malaria, leprosy and leishmaniasis. “Of course, these diseases are far from the greatest threat to public health at the moment, but because of them, many people die anyway,” he said in Davos.

Epidemic problem

Epidemics are a particular problem for pharmaceutical giants. Their interest reaches the greatest degree at the moment when the first outbreak of infection occurs, but after the first wave subsides, their interest decreases accordingly, as does the investment. This means that often “quite promising medical technologies are on the sidelines, simply because no one wants to spend money on them,” says Ellen `t Hoen. This was confirmed by the CEO of the Novartis concern, Vasant Narasimhan, in an interview with CNBC in early 2020.

According to him, “when the epidemic begins, everyone wants to do something to fight it, but when it ends, interest in it disappears.” Therefore, the main question is how to secure funding during periods of decline in epidemiological danger?

In this context, the press often refers to the experience of the pharmaceutical giant GSK gained during the Ebola epidemic. After years of investing in the development of three vaccines at the final stage of their clinical trials in 2016, GSK abruptly stopped working. Why? A sharp reduction in Ebola cases. Having no real prospect of financial returns, the pharmaceutical giant finally surrendered and last 2019 transferred all rights to a nonprofit structure in the United States, which continued this work.

At the same time, the Ebola epidemic broke out again, only now in other parts of Africa, for example, in DR Congo. “The same thing happened during the SARS epidemic,” said Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, speaking on the French-speaking Swiss television station RTS. “Seventeen years ago, companies began developing vaccines. But when the time came for clinical trials, there were no more patients, because the virus had disappeared somewhere.”

Bad experience

This sad experience probably made the pharmaceutical giants far more cautious. And this caution now negatively affects the process of finding a vaccine against a new coronavirus. As a result, many companies limit themselves to advising health authorities and testing existing drugs for their effectiveness. Concerns Novartis, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi have already announced that they are checking their existing products to determine if they can be used to combat Covid-19.

Such is, for example, Actemra arthritis medicine from Roche, which is included in the government coronavirus diagnosis and treatment plan in China. Roche is also partnering with a German company to expedite diagnostic methods. A Swiss company spokeswoman told SWI that her goal was to produce as many virus tests as possible. For large companies such as Roche, hunting for a vaccine would be too much of a financial task within a very short term perspective with too few chances of a noticeable profit. In addition, the urgency of the problem of combating coronaviruses is associated with other risks, including legal aspects and obligations.

Therefore, many investors are guided by smaller start-up companies that take risks more readily. For example, when a little-known company, Vaxart announced that it was starting a search for a possible vaccine for Covid-19, its stock price immediately increased by 106.1%. Quotes of papers and other biotechnology companies, such as Novovax and Inovio, also rose after they announced plans to conduct tests and trials in the field of combating coronavirus. According to WHO, it would take about 18 months to produce a coronavirus vaccine, which is generally shorter than other vaccines.

Change Model

For Ellen`t Hoen, who has been addressing global health issues for more than 35 years, these are all missed opportunities. “Unfortunately, no lessons are being taken from the past right now. Coronavirus will only be added to the list of global health problems that the pharmaceutical industry is turning away from. It seems that only some additional incentives can help here, ”she wrote recently in a comment posted on the Barrons business news site.

She is convinced that, ultimately, public-private partnerships, that is, cooperation between companies and public institutions and foundations, should take the initiative. But there are also obstacles, especially in the field of tariffs and usage rights. For example, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations CEPI, which is mainly funded by governments and charities, could be a suitable partner.

However, she rarely succeeds in attracting large pharmaceutical companies as partners, since they insist, first of all, on obtaining large profits and demand exclusive property rights for themselves. Bernard Pecul requires a paradigm shift. If the pharmaceutical giants in the fight against coronavirus simply donated drugs and gave money, then this, he said, would be “not the right approach. “We need real participation wholeheartedly, and not just charity with a gentleman’s shoulder.”


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The article is written and prepared by our foreign editors from different countries around the world – material edited and published by Ordo News staff in our US newsroom press.