Drug Industry’s Covid-19 Push Didn’t Cross Over to Other Viruses

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Even as drugmakers mounted an unprecedented response to Covid-19 last year, they continued to ignore other viruses that mostly affect poorer countries, a report found.

The pipeline of potential drugs and vaccines against the new coronavirus went from zero to 63 projects through June 2020, according to the Access to Medicine Foundation, which reviews 20 of the world’s biggest drugmakers. Meanwhile, none of the companies was working on 10 of 16 other emerging infectious diseases flagged by the World Health Organization as a risk of pandemic or serious epidemic.

The lack of planning for major outbreaks is largely because of economics, with motivation low to work on diseases that are perceived as mostly affecting poorer populations, said Jayasree Iyer, the foundation’s executive director. More companies need to be involved in emerging infectious disease research if the world is to be prepared for the next pandemic, she said.

“Most of the industry responded quickly when they started seeing that there is a market potential for developing therapeutics and vaccines for Covid,” she said. “Industry, society and government often see a lot of these emerging infectious diseases as something that is still far away and unlikely to affect populations. That understanding today that we have about how Covid has really sort of ravaged across the earth is starting to increase that awareness.”

As recently as 2018, no drugmaker had a research-and-development project on coronaviruses, according to the foundation. Now 17 of the 20 companies surveyed are working on the matter. Work on other emerging infectious diseases has been stagnant, however, with a handful of projects involving Ebola and the similar and highly lethal Marburg virus disease, non-polio enteroviruses and chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness that causes extreme fatigue and inability to work.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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