by DAVID MITCHELL AND BEN WAKANA
As the COVID-19 crisis grows, Big Pharma is trying to position itself as the key to ending this pandemic. But drug corporations have been uninterested in fighting infectious diseases for decades.
In this blog, we examine pharma’s deep disinterest in combating infectious diseases and why drug corporations are suddenly interested in working toward COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
Recent History: A Drop In Pharma R&D
Drug corporations have substantially decreased their investment into treatments and vaccines for emerging infectious disease over the last decade. From 2010 to 2014, only six new drugs to treat antimicrobial infections were approved. That’s compared to years 1980 to 1984 when 19 new antimicrobial medications were approved. In 2018, only 1 percent of research and development projects were for emerging infectious diseases. In fact, of the twenty companies that spent $2 billion on research and development in the last year, only four have units dedicated to vaccine development.
The lack of innovation from drug companies to combat infectious diseases was so concerning that last year the United Nations issued a report outlining the global infectious disease crisis we face without more innovation.
Antibiotics and antivirals treat some of the world’s most deadly conditions, but they typically are only prescribed to patients for short periods, sometimes a couple of weeks or even a few days. They aren’t well suited for blockbuster sales. Instead, manufacturers are more interested in investing in drugs that patients take for long periods of time like cancer and chronic illness treatments.
A similar trend is true for vaccines, which are essential to ending the COVID-19 crisis. Over the last 50 years, the drug industry’s vaccine research and development pipeline slowed substantially because pharmaceutical manufacturers know the market for vaccines is small compared to chronic illnesses. The very design of vaccines make the markets small as individuals receive vaccines typically once, sometimes two or three times, throughout their lives.
Why is Pharma interested now?
So why are pharmaceutical companies suddenly competing to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19? Because the extent of the crisis and generous government incentives have transformed this pandemic into a business opportunity with minimal risk and tremendous profit potential.
Not until it became clear that the novel coronavirus was highly contagious and spreading rapidly did pharmaceutical corporations direct attention toward developing a vaccine. As the death toll and geographic reach of the virus advanced, the pharmaceutical industry knew that whatever company brought a vaccine to market would be selling a product with dozens of desperate government purchasers and billions of terrified buyers.
Though social distancing measures can slow the spread, drug companies know that stopping a pandemic of this proportion requires herd immunity — the phenomenon that occurs when a large proportion of a population has developed immunity to a disease. Since COVID-19 is extremely deadly, the safest way to achieve herd immunity is through widespread vaccination. Experts estimate that at least 300 million doses of a vaccine will be needed in the US alone. Even if all of those buyers require the vaccine only once in their lifetime, drug companies will see incredible profits.
With COVID-19, the US government has eliminated many risks that often dissuade drug companies from vaccine investments. By bankrolling research, sponsoring clinical trials, and eliminating all liability for drug corporations, American taxpayers are heavily subsidizing drug corporations’ search for a COVID-19 vaccine. In our previous blog, we outlined the key role that taxpayer funding is playing in ensuring effective drugs for COVID-19 come to market quickly.
The truth is the pharmaceutical industry’s top priority isn’t public health; it is out to make the highest possible profit. So it has not directed sufficient resources toward vaccines or treatments for emerging infectious diseases even though a pandemic has been predicted for years.
In the absence of reasonable pricing that accounts for taxpayer investments, the COVID-19 pandemic may provide an opportunity for drug corporations to turn minimal resources and risk into tremendous profits and leave taxpayers and patients footing the bill.