Vaccine hunters must stay focused on innovation
The global pharmaceutical industry has felt an unprecedented amount of pressure since the start of the pandemic, with the world pinning its hopes on a vaccine or antiviral drug to prevent people from catching COVID-19.
In order to achieve this, the industry has had to collaborate unlike ever before, in some cases waiving their intellectual property rights in order to do so. Early in the pandemic, the idea of patent pools was promoted by the WHO to encourage increased collaboration. In the end, this wasn’t taken up widely, but there has been a great deal of collaboration going on, with competitors opting to work together to find a solution to this global crisis.
The amount of innovation activity happening simultaneously is much higher than it would normally be for a single disease, due to the hardship and suffering that COVID-19 is causing around the world. However, pharmaceutical companies should not let the pandemic put other areas of innovation on hold.
Many firms have slowed or suspended other research programmes, instead putting most of their focus on finding a vaccine for COVID-19. Although the financial impact of taking such a streamlined approach has been mitigated to some extent by the level of collaboration between companies, a large amount of upfront investment has still been required.
There will be winners and losers of course, and as the frontrunners begin to emerge in the race to find a vaccine, we can see that a commercial return will be forthcoming for some. However, this won’t be the case for all. For many companies, this effort is unlikely to generate much, if any, financial reward, and could even bring smaller firms to the brink of collapse. As such, pharmaceutical companies must quickly re-prioritise non-COVID research programmes to try and find other drugs and treatments that might have greater commercial promise.
Undoubtedly, funding for research into other life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's, neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases, has taken a hit in recent months. As vaccines for COVID-19 begin to secure regulatory approval, it is vital that the Government considers ways to address this underfunding by providing a financial boost where necessary and putting research programmes in these areas back at the top of the priority list.
In future, the industry and policymakers should encourage increased collaboration in the area of drug discovery, to continue to improve the speed of both research and approvals. This approach appears to be paying off at present, so there is no reason why it couldn’t be successful in combatting other diseases too.
While the pandemic has taken over everyone’s lives since March, pharmaceutical companies must not forget about the research projects they’ve put on the back burner, especially now there is at least one vaccine preparing for roll-out. Other life-threatening conditions still persist, and continued innovation remains essential in tackling them.
Dr Joanna Thurston is a partner and patent attorney at intellectual property firm,