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Pharma’s Response to Coronavirus


Words by Isabel O’Brien


A global health threat emerges suddenly, the build-up only visible in the regions first affected, but while general populations can standby aghast, the pharmaceutical industry must descend on its labs to manufacture a solution.


The current coronavirus outbreak was first detected on New Year’s Eve 2019, after a string of pneumonia cases were recorded in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The new decade was looming and with it a new strain of coronavirus, previously seen in the form of SARS and MERS, for the scientific community to unscramble.


Johnson and Johnson were the first large pharma company to respond, who, in addition to Merck & Co., produced a vaccine that helped to contain the Ebola outbreak of 2018, demonstrating the benefit of fast-tracked vaccine development on disease spread.


“We began work to identify a candidate vaccine for SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in early January 2020, when the viral sequence became publicly available,” comments a Johnson and Johnson spokesperson. “We are hopeful that we can create a candidate vaccine for this virus and begin a Phase 1 clinical study within approximately 8–12 months.”


GSK, Gilead, and most recently, Sanofi, have also announced work on a vaccine against the virus, which at the time of writing has caused the deaths of nearly 2,650 people. This figure could be considered high in relation to the time period but is comparatively low in the context of the 79,700 people it has infected. The COVID-19 fatality rate currently stands at 2%, compared to 10% and 34% regarding SARS and MERS, respectively.


Considering these high contagion and low fatality figures, developing a successful vaccine is a priority for combating this strain of the virus. In order to exceed typical gestational periods, pharma cannot act independently, but must collaborate in order to hasten the development process.


Both Johnson and Johnson and Sanofi have entered into collaborations with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), in order to access additional funding and facilities that will allow them to screen approved, as well as investigational, therapeutics that have completed basic clinical trial stages.


“The partnership between Janssen and BARDA will ensure that vital research is made possible at rapid speed and underscores the importance of public–private partnerships,” comments Johnson and Johnson.


Smaller biotechnology company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, has also entered into a partnership of this sort, collaborating with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to bolster their COVID-19 vaccine discovery programme.


Public–private partnerships are vital in the course of global health crises, allowing for government resources to be synthesised with the scientific expertise of the pharma industry. This proved evident in relation to the Ebola outbreak, in which BARDA invested $23 million, amongst other means, in Merck and Co.’s drug ERVEBO®, which has demonstrated a 100% success rate of preventing Ebola when administered correctly.


When a vaccine for COVID-19 will be ready is unclear, but discoveries are emerging daily in the bid to combat the virus. Two leading vaccine developers, Merck and Co. and Pfizer, are even yet to join the race, so it is not just a matter of when, but also who, will find an answer to this emerging health crisis.