Fighting the deadliest emerging infectious diseases – Are pharma companies doing enough?

The world has always lived at the mercy of deadly viruses and infectious diseases. We get alarmed whenever there’s a deadly virus outbreak. The newspapers get flooded with the news of infection getting spread to even the most distant parts of the world and news channels start showing the mortality rates caused due to the new virus infection and different ways to protect from the disease.

There have been several major outbreaks in the past, and every year, there’s a new virus threat that’s being posed onto mankind.

We’ve seen the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that occurred three years ago. It was the deadliest since the discovery of the virus in 1976 and alone caused more than 11,000 deaths worldwide.

In February 2016, WHO declared Zika, an Aedes mosquito born disease, as Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Within few months, the deadly virus that’s known to cause subsequent birth defects in pregnant women infected more than one million people and has now spread to more than 70 countries.

Then there’s Dengue, another mosquito-borne disease, which according to WHO report, is known to infect over 390 million people every year.

Though combating emerging infectious diseases is a global battlefront, we are always one step behind the deadly viruses and pathogens. The high mortality rate due to these deadly viruses is a grim reminder that much work still needs to be done.

But the question is – Are we doing enough?

Pharmaceutical companies need to take the charge

Easy and prompt access to effective vaccines is the key to prevent the spread of these emerging diseases, and pharmaceutical companies play a major role in this space. Till now, our approach to disease prevention has always been reactive. But time has come to change our research methodology to proactive vaccine R&D. While reactive vaccine R&D focuses on developing vaccines after the infection has occurred, the proactive approach focuses on creating solutions to combat and eliminate infections before they have appeared. Though much has been said about these approaches, little has been brought into practice.

The reasons for this are many. First, proactive vaccine R&D requires flexible approaches and reproducible processes. To add to this are the rapidly changing genetic makeup of certain pathogens due to mutations and environmental changes, like influenza. Moreover, the need for vaccines for upcoming diseases is unpredictable and there’s a zero guarantee of return on investment because the size and severity of virus outbreak is difficult to predict in advance. Due to this, even some of the most urgently needed vaccines are either not being developed or still in the pipeline.

Creating R&D Blueprint to prevent epidemics

The World Health Organization is pioneering the global effort to increase R&D preparedness for future diseases through R&D Blueprint. WHO seeks to create an environment where through increased funding, data sharing and partnerships, R&D community is able to positively change the public health landscape. This involves:

  • Identification and prioritization of key pathogens
  • Creating an effective governance and coordinated framework
  • Increased investment into R&D
  • Increased data sharing
  • R&D monitoring and evaluation
  • Platform technologies

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is definitely a key initiative here. It aims to accelerate the research and development for new vaccines by working on the principles of creating new, sustainable partnerships between different sectors for the production of emergency vaccines and diagnostic therapeutics. It leverages on no loss, shared benefits and equitable access to speed up the vaccine development process.

The current state of vaccine development

Though some big pharmaceutical players are actively participating in the vaccine development process for new emerging diseases, like chikungunya, Ebola and Marbug, a lot more needs to be done in this arena to facilitate the speedy development of new vaccines. Most of the vaccine development projects that are in the pipeline are limited in their size, mostly because of poor incentive schemes. Also, the viruses and diseases that are being addressed show that pharma companies are still working on the reactive models.

To create a breakthrough in vaccine development technology, pharmaceutical companies need to move beyond their traditional barriers of vaccine development. They need to invest in risk sharing models, collaborate with multiple global health stakeholders, partner with local and global authorities, and try to receive bigger and better funding for fast tracked vaccine development process. Not just that, pharmaceutical companies need to plan ahead of time so that they are able to develop vaccines before an outbreak occurs.

Time has come when we need to put in place a stronger framework for a coordinated global response to emerging infectious diseases.

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