covid-19: Infectious diseases’ drug research back on the radar of Big Pharma

Mumbai: Last year, when former US FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb joined a venture capital firm that invests in drug discovery, he was asked what was the one area he was most excited about.

Gottlieb said infectious diseases, which, till then, was the unloved child of drug development.

It took Covid-19 to make drug researchers realise the debilitating effect a virus can have on people’s health and the entire world economy. In fact, the Covid-19 outbreak has given a renewed push to focusing research on infectious diseases. Big Pharma has used the opportunity to start research into infectious diseases, mostly backed by governments and not-for-profit organisations.

One such, the ACT Accelerator for Covid-19 therapeutics, launched by the World Health Organization in partnership with the not-for-profit Wellcome Trust and UnitAid, is responsible for speeding up investment for therapies against Covid-19 by the end of this year. Launched in April, the therapeutics arm is looking to raise about $2 billion to accelerate the development of effective products. The funding will enable access to repurposed drugs for infectious disease in low- and middle-income countries and support R&D costs for new antibodies and/or new antiviral products. The aim of such initiatives is that they change the low investment case to work on infectious diseases therapies.

Companies such as Gilead, Eli Lilly and Regeneron have worked on novel treatments, either from their own labs or by reviving molecules that had been abandoned during other epidemics. For example, Gilead’s Remdesivir was originally tried as a cure for Ebola.

Companies such as Eli Lilly and Regeneron have revived the field of antibody therapy that has become a key foundation for Covid-19 treatments.

This, however, has taken place because the US government decided to invest $450 million at risk to Regeneron to work on the antibody cocktail for Covid-19.

There is a need for a pull and push mechanism so pharma companies find it viable to invest in neglected areas of infectious disease research, Jayashree Iyer, vice-chairman of Amsterdam-based Access to Medicine Foundation, told ET.

Her organisation brings out a biannual report on the state of R&D in ‘priority diseases,’ or diseases that hurt the middle- and low-income countries the most. The 2018 report found that most priority R&D projects were being conducted by five companies — GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Merck KGaA, Novartis and Sanofi.

A separate report this year, on the state of R&D funding, by consulting firm IQVIA found that infectious disease research represents 6% of the 2019 late-state active pipeline, growing 13% over the past five years, compared to the 76% increase in R&D in oncology products, which accounted for 30% of all the late-stage drug discovery pipeline.

IQVIA noted that the pandemic will ensure growth in discovery and R&D, leading to breakthroughs in novel therapies and vaccines in infectious diseases, which are likely to stay in focus.

It expects that investment in infectious disease research “will have a halo effect on pharmaceutical and regulatory innovation across all critically important disease areas.”

Investments in this area of research could also help boost the image of Big Pharma, said Iyer of Access to Medicine Foundation.

“Getting more companies involved in priority R&D would not only increase the number of products being developed, but would also reduce the negative impact of individual companies deciding to halt their engagement in such R&D,” she said.

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