Jumping to Meet the Threat of COVID-19

March 12, 2020 9:36 am

The pharmaceutical industry is working quickly to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. In fact, as MIT’s Technology Review stated, “biotech and drug companies have jumped in to meet the contagion threat using speedy new technology.” According to a MarketWatch review released on March 10, these efforts include (but are not limited to):


- Gilead, the company that developed the “first major cure for hepatitis C,” is conducting a randomized, controlled clinical trial in Wuhan, China. Additionally, on March 3 Gilead announced it will conduct two randomized Phase 3 trials—one with 600 patients who have moderate cases of COVID-19 and one with 400 patients who have severe cases of COVID-19.


- GlaxoSmithKline GSK, which has “brought to market vaccines for human papillomavirus and the seasonal flu,” is working with a Chinese biotechnology company to develop a vaccine.


- Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. plans to begin clinical trials with 30 participants in the United States in April. It also expects to begin human trials in China and South Korea within the next month.


- Johnson & Johnson and Moderna are both either already are in, or plan to soon start, Phase 1 trials.


Other companies working to solve this crisis include Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Takeda, Sanofi, and Vir Biotechnology. Even this list is not exhaustive. On Monday, a local news outlet in Michigan announced that Emergent BioSolutions, a company in Lansing that created an anthrax vaccine about 20 years ago, is also working to “protect and enhance life,” according to its senior vice president of manufacturing.


Before COVID-19 took over the headlines, there was a growing number of news stories about vaccine shortages for other conditions. What causes shortages? Price controls.


In a 2012 column in The Wall Street Journal, Columbia Business School Professor Awi Federgruen explained, “Low prices induce drugmakers to exit various markets, or at least to reallocate their manufacturing capacity toward more profitable, patented pharmaceuticals. Low prices also tend to eliminate the rationale for investments in better manufacturing technologies and processes.” That was not only Federgruen’s opinion. He noted the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, a federal government entity, had “identified price controls as the primary reason for the dramatic decline in the number of suppliers.”


We cannot afford to have drugmakers disappear from the market, or invest in new technologies—not now, and not after the COVID-19 threat passes. We need companies that will be able to marshal the resources needed to meet each new challenge.


While it likely will take less time to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 than it does to develop treatments for other conditions and diseases (as we note here, the average length of time to develop a new treatment is more than a decade), it still could take up to 18 months, or even more. So while private and public researchers across the globe try to work quickly and collaboratively, Americans should diligently follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 recommendations, available here.