Expert insight

Speeding up the search for safe and effective COVID-19 therapies & vaccines – joining forces for a challenging road ahead

8 May 2020
  • Thomas Cueni Director General

Last week, high-level representatives from seven companies – Takeda, Merck, AstraZeneca, CSL Behring, MSD, Pfizer and Sandoz – took part in a second IFPMA COVID-19 virtual media briefing dedicated to the on-going R&D efforts to find a treatment for COVID-19.

It was an important milestone, taking stock of all that has been achieved in little more than the three months since the COVID-19 outbreak started making the headlines.

Since our previous COVID-19 media briefing on 19 March, so much has changed. Many lives have been lost or turned upside down. Today, the social and economic impact of COVID-19 is all too real – on daily lives and livelihoods. At the time, I was joined by various industry leaders in delivering the powerful message that we at pharma are ALL IN to tackle COVID-19.

Companies did not miss a beat in stepping up to the challenge. As soon as the genome of this new coronavirus was shared on 16 January 2020 and the scientific community knew what it was dealing with, top management and scientists in pharma companies immediately set about reprogramming and reprioritising their R&D and technical operations to tackle the pandemic. At the same time, they checked their business continuity plans to ensure that existing essential medicines would still reach patients who depend on them.

As the size of the challenge grew, with the WHO announcing a pandemic, it became increasingly clear that nobody could take on this virus alone. Pharma put aside fierce rivalries, reached out across the bio-ecosystem to commit to work as ONE team to achieve ONE shared goal: containing and ending COVID-19.

All the stops

Since then, we have not slowed down – quite the opposite. Our industry has mobilized the expertise of its scientists, clinical teams, management and technical experts and it has multiplied efforts to accelerate the development of COVID-19 therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics. In a time frame of just a couple of months, we have seen repurposed treatments entering clinical trials to test their effectiveness and safety. Vaccine candidates have likewise entered human clinical trials, COVID-19 antibody tests have been developed, and companies have joined forces to scale up manufacturing capacities.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. The fertile innovative biopharmaceutical ecosystem and existing incentives to drive innovation are the reason we have so many therapeutic candidates already under investigation.

Over 130 COVID-19 therapeutics, including anti-malarials, anti-inflammatory anti-virals, auto-immune, anti-inflammatories/inhibitors and plasma treatments, are currently under investigation compared to a shade over 100 vaccines. Of these 77 are repurposed treatments and 68 novel treatments while IFPMA members have initiated more than 25 clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of medicines to treat COVID-19. A great deal of this R&D is being done in collaboration, pooling knowledge and expertise. While we want to advance as fast as possible to bring an effective therapeutic to market, we can only speed up the process to a certain extent without compromising patient safety. Meeting safety and ethical standards remains one of the highest principles behind our work.

It is very good news that there are so many treatments available to be tried out – as we know that many of those tested will not make it to the finish line. However, it is also imperative to have many options in play – as doctors will need a portfolio of treatment choices, not a “single” solution to treat patients. I am hopeful that rather sooner than later, we will see the first successes in these clinical trials, moving us closer to effectively combatting COVID-19 in the long run.

Leading the way

While all of this has been going on, IFPMA on behalf of the biopharmaceutical industry has also become a founding partner of the landmark global partnership “Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator”. This demonstrates our deep sense of responsibility toward citizens, patients and the wider society. Our role in this collaboration is important as we are uniquely positioned to find and scale up solutions for preventing and treating COVID-19.

There is no doubt that the scale of the COVID-19 crisis requires a novel modus operandi built on partnerships in the public interest. A great deal of this effort is being carried out while putting aside normal rivalries and we have seen dozens of collaborations between industry, academia, philanthropy public and private organisations, sharing data, knowledge and expertise. We are really pleased and proud to work on an equal footing and shared basis with other stakeholders across the world to find solutions so that safe and effective medicines and affordable vaccines can be accessible for all those in need.

Doing the right thing, doing good

The focus of the pharmaceutical industry on containing COVID-19 has public health at its heart. Rather than business and profit. We are deeply conscious to what we owe to societies and we are also deeply conscious that the therapies that make it past the finishing line with must be affordable to everyone.

In addition, the Global COVID-19 Pledging Conference which was hosted earlier this week by the European Commission has signalled an immense global commitment by governments, international organisations and the industry alike – not only to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics but to ensure that the tough decisions are taken together, with all of those holding the keys to success sitting at the same table.

Ultimately, in the race to end COVID-19, we will only succeed if we journey together.

For more information on how the biopharmaceutical industry is living up to its commitments, visit the Covid-19 Innovation TimeLine.