World / Science & Health

In fighting outbreaks like COVID-19, Big Pharma struggles to get out front

Bloomberg

Sanofi has joined the race to combat coronavirus as the outbreak is kindling fears of a pandemic. The question is whether its effort will prove more effective than some of Big Pharma’s past attempts to tackle dangerous new pathogens.

The French drugmaker said Tuesday it will team up with a U.S. agency to develop a vaccine against the virus that has killed more than 1,800 people. Sanofi is betting its earlier work to develop a SARS vaccine will speed the effort.

Every new health crisis poses a similar dilemma: Pharmaceutical companies must respond with swift solutions in a context where the science, the outlook and the potential payoff are murky at best. Developing a vaccine typically takes years. By the time they’re ready, the crisis has often abated, leaving little incentive to carry on with the work.

That’s what happened with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, another type of coronavirus that killed almost 800 people in an outbreak 17 years ago before fading away within months. A previous collaboration between Sanofi and a U.S. body to make a shot against the Zika virus also fizzled, as have some attempts by giants to prepare for future epidemics.

Successes include Merck & Co.’s Ebola vaccine, Ervebo, which was deployed most recently in an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To better anticipate the risks and keep outbreaks from turning into global emergencies, GlaxoSmithKline PLC proposed an ambitious plan in 2016 dedicated to the cause. It offered a facility, along with staff and technology, at its vaccines research center in Rockville, Maryland. The idea was to be ready to develop shots for viruses with destructive potential — even if it wasn’t lucrative.

But the effort never got off the ground, unable to attract enough interest and funding. Earlier this month, Glaxo pledged to make its vaccine adjuvant platform available to other groups through a partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a vaccine project that overshadowed its own.

Oslo-based CEPI, started in 2017, has joined forces with partners including Moderna Inc. to accelerate the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine using new approaches. Some companies aim to have a vaccine available within 12 to 18 months.

“There will need to be another discussion when we are over this epidemic on how we are going to organize ourselves better for the future,” said Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, which last week said it would put its experience on Ebola to work on developing a coronavirus vaccine.

Recent global outbreaks are forcing governments and scientists to confront the fact that in an interconnected world, new pathogens move much faster than technologies to develop and produce cures.

In less than two months, the virus has infected more than 70,000 people and spread to almost 30 countries, despite drastic measures to contain it in China. Aboard a cruise ship quarantined in Japan, the Diamond Princess, about one in seven people became infected, with 542 people confirmed to have contracted the illness.

The industry is willing to contribute, but especially in an emergency it needs financial incentives as more lucrative products — like cancer medicines with eye-popping rewards — beckon. There’s a need for new measures to reduce investment risks for drugmakers whose know-how and infrastructure are critical, Stoffels said.

“The economic reality is that these are not going to be lucrative,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “That’s a very difficult problem to solve.”

Sanofi in mid-2017 abandoned development of a Zika vaccine licensed from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research about a year earlier as the epidemic subsided and the U.S., faced with a public outcry over drug prices, cut its funding contribution. Now the company will try to make its effort on SARS pay off against a new coronavirus.

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