Big drug firms nixed plan to push vaccines in 2017
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - May 30, 2020 - 12:00am

The race is on – among the world’s biggest pharmaceutical corporations and many independent initiatives in some countries – to develop the first vaccine for COVID-19.

Some 110 drugs are now being tested against the virus, which continues to spread fear among people and gravely harmed national economies and the global economy itself.

Earlier, President Duterte had vowed to lift the nationwide quarantine as soon as a COVID-19 vaccine was developed; last Monday he reiterated his vow. In fact, the Philippines is participating in the “Solidarity Trial” of certain drugs conducted by the World Health Organization for possible use as anti-COVID-19 vaccine. The trial is focusing on two projects led by a pharmceutical firm in China and another one in Taiwan.

Urgency is compelling as the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is quickening and spreading to even more regions worldwide. While  more governments, mostly among the developed nations whose economies are ravaged, “sputter into reopening” from their respective lockdowns, the New York Times noted yesterday that “six-figure increases [in confirmed infections] have been reported four times”; that means hundreds of thousand cases overall uncovered in one day.

More than 5.7 million people around the world have already been infected by the virus, killing close to 357,000. And, the NYT reported, nearly 700,000 new cases were reported just in the past week. Particularly worrisome has been the upsurge in Latin America and the Gulf States which had previously not been known to host the pathogen.

In some countries the increase has been attributed to improved testing programs (as our health authorities claim in the case of the Philippines, but disputed by critics). However, in other countries it appears that “the virus has only now arrived with wide scope and fatal force,” the paper observed.

But in the case of the United States, which is “armed with some of the best-trained scientists and infection disease specialists,” the paper wrote wryly, it missed a chance to contain the virus as it spread with particular intensity from late January to early March. Over there, 1.7-million infections have been tallied and the death toll has surpassed 100,000 so far. No large-scale testing has yet been done.

Talking about a missed chance, the same largest pharmaceutical firms now competing in the race to develop a COVID-17 vaccine can be blamed for outrightly rejecting, in 2017, such a chance to fast-track research towards a coronovirus vaccine before an outbreak occurred.

Among these giant drug firms are GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Pfizer, Lilly, and Johnson & Johnson, according to an exclusive report by the Guardian last May 25.

The plan to speed up the development and approval of such vaccines was put forward by the European Commission (EC) representatives sitting in the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private partnership aimed at backing “cutting-edge” research in Europe. The EC’s argument had been that such research could “facilitate the development and regulatory approval of vaccines against priority pathogens, to the extent possible before an actual outbreak occurs.” One has to admire such farsightedness and sense of responsibility!

The plan was rejected by the pharmaceutical industry partners in the IMI, the Guardian said.

The British paper’s exclusive story was based on a report by the Corporate Observatory Europe (COE), a Brussels-based research center. It examines decisions made by the IMI, which has a 5-billion euro budget, composed of EU funding and “in-kind” contributions from private and other sources.

The IMI governing body constitutes EC officials and representatives of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries of which the five giant drug firms cited above are members.

In recent weeks, due to COVID-19 infection impacts, the lack of preparedness for the outbreak has been exposed. This has already led to accusations that the pharmaceutical industry has failed to prioritize treatments for infectious diseases because these are less profitable than those for chronic medical conditions. Last year the largest drug firms undertook around 400 new research projects, about half of them focused on treating cancer, compared with only 65 on infectious diseases, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

There are now eight potential vaccines for coronavirus undergoing clinical trials, but there is no guarantee of success, the COE report says. One of the most promising, being developed by Oxford University, is said to have only a 50 percent chance of being approved for use.

Rather than compensating for market failures by speeding up the development of innovative medicines, as per its responsibility and expertise, the Guardian quoted the COE report as saying, the IMI has been “more about business-as-usual market priorities.”

The EC “biopreparation” funding proposal in 2017 would have involved refining computer simulations known as “in silico” modeling, and improved analysis of the council’s testing models to give regulators greater confidence in approving vaccines, the CEO report points out.

Minutes of the IMI governing board meeting in 2017 reveal that the EC proposal was not accepted. Also the IMI decided against funding projects with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation seeking to tackle so-called blueprint priority diseases such as the MERS and SARS, both coronoviruses.

The CEO report further says that “the directing influence of big pharma on the IMI’s research agenda has led it to becoming dominated by industry priorities, and sidelining poverty-related and neglected diseases, including coronoviruses.”

On May 28, Reuters reported that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) plans to produce next year one billion doses of vaccine efficacy boosters, called adjuvants, for use in the treatment of COVID-19. Touted as the world’s top vaccine producer, GSK claimed it was in talks with governments to support its manufacturing expansion to help scale up the making of future vaccines.

Without citing the cost, the drug giant only said production would be carried out at sites in Europe and North America. It disclosed that it’s working on its own COVID-19 vaccine with the French drug firm Sanofi.

Any profit it makes from this, GSK boasted, it would reinvest into coronavirus research and preparation for future pandemics. A key point of its efforts, it added, was to make its adjuvants available to the world’s poorest nations.

That, of course, remains to be seen.

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