With all of the gloom and doom headlines about the increasing spread of the coronavirus, you would think that the big pharmaceutical companies would be pulling out all of the stops to come up with a vaccine. You would be wrong.
Vaccines remain science’s best – and virtually only – weapon against viruses, and yet, Big Pharma has shown little or no interest in working with the federal government in developing a virus for COVID-19.
Why is this? Because vaccines for epidemics have to overcome the same scientific and regulatory hurdles as other promising treatments. It is a long, arduous and expensive process. Only a very few massive companies retain the ability to develop and produce a vaccine from start to finish, partly because of the expense and the timescales involved and partly because they’ve consolidated the patents on manufacturing processes. Concerns about profits and liability have often kept most pharmaceutical companies from moving quickly or getting involved at all when it comes to working on vaccines for a novel virus-like corona.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently working in partnership with a biotech company, Moderna Therapeutics, on a vaccine that could be marketed. However, neither they nor the government, has the ability to mass-produce the vaccine, should they come up with a successful one. That could only be done by one of the big name pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a director at NIH, said that no major pharmaceutical company has come forward to say it would manufacture a vaccine for the novel coronavirus currently being developed by the National Institutes of Health, a situation he described as “very difficult and very frustrating.”
Fauci said it would be at least a year before a coronavirus vaccine would be available. However, that timeline assumes a large pharmaceutical manufacturer does step up to help make the product, and thus far, none has.
The reason is the same behind everything that Big Pharma does — profits. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are driven not by the public good, but by their bottom line, and the time, cost, and effort to create a vaccine for a crisis that may have burned itself out by the time the vaccine is available, is rarely worth the effort. As the leader of the UK’s Ebola response, Adrian Hill, told the Independent in 2014, “Unless there’s a big market it’s not worth the while of a mega-company … There was no business case to make an Ebola vaccine for the people who needed it most.”
At the same event where Dr. Fauci made his comments, Ron Klain, who served as the Ebola czar in the Obama administration, echoed concerns that drugmakers may be wary of getting involved again.
“I don’t work for the companies, I’m not like a drug company fan,” Klain said, “but there’s no question that a lot of them lost a lot of money trying to produce an Ebola vaccine.”
And now we are seeing the same thing with corona.