‘Pharmaceutical companies avoid responsibility for emerging infectious diseases’


NOS Newsyesterday, 17:28

  • Sander Zurhake

    health care editor

  • Sander Zurhake

    health care editor

Large pharmaceutical companies hardly invest in research into emerging viruses anymore, despite the experiences with the corona pandemic. This has emerged from research by the renowned organization Access to Medicine Foundation.

According to the non-profit organization, investments are not forthcoming mainly because research into new infectious diseases is not financially attractive. Experts are concerned. “If corona has proven one thing, it is that an infectious disease that originates on the other side of the world can have major consequences here,” says Chantal-Bleeker-Rovers, professor of Outbreaks of Infectious Diseases at Radboudumc.

Night candle

The last corona wave passed relatively quietly this fall. Previous covid infections and vaccinations have led to some resistance among many Dutch people. In addition, fewer people feel the need for the repeat shot. There is less testing for a cold and it is starting to become normal again to show up at the office with a cold and cough.

Back to normal. Although epidemiologist Bleeker-Rovers, like virologist Marion Koopmans, warns that it is still too early to herald the end of the pandemic. The advice remains to continue testing in case of complaints and to stay home if necessary.

In the meantime, it can be concluded that the large pharmaceutical companies have in any case returned to their old working method. After major efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus in record time, the vast majority of these companies are once again no longer investing in research into emerging viruses.

While according to the World Health Organization there are still enough infectious diseases that are potentially very threatening to global public health.

And with that, an old mistake is repeated. After all, new coronaviruses were also on the WHO warning list, but significant research for a vaccine was not carried out by major pharmaceutical companies. Until it became a global problem.

“You saw the same thing with the monkeypox outbreak last summer,” said Bleeker-Rovers. “This was partly because hardly anything has been done in recent years to combat this infectious disease in Africa, while it has been causing infections there for years.”

‘Familiar Tragedy’

The problem is that working on vaccines against emerging infectious diseases is not profitable for pharmaceutical companies. “The population of developing countries in particular suffers from infectious diseases,” says Marijn Verhoef, Director of Research at the Access to Medicine Foundation.

“That is much less the case in high-income countries such as the West. And that is precisely where pharmaceutical companies can earn their money. So they mainly focus on the development of medicines against common diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

According to Erasmus professor of Virology Koopmans, this is the well-known tragedy. “There is only a market for a vaccine if you know what the impact of the disease is. So as long as the infections are limited, there is no market.”

World ideal for viruses

In the meantime, however, it is increasingly in the interest of the West to halt the emerging infectious diseases. The world population is growing, especially in developing countries. That is ideal for a virus to spread. For example, in slums that are created by further urbanization and that also displace the habitats of animals.

“That in turn leads to more intense contact between humans and animals. This combination with climate change and migration also makes it possible for infectious diseases to jump over to humans and spread quickly. That means that the risks are high,” says Koopmans.

In order to break through the perverse market forces, the CEPI was established in 2017 during a meeting of the World Economic Forum. An international coalition that, thanks to the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and various countries, was able to invest hundreds of millions in the development of vaccines. For example, Moderna received funding for the development of the successful mRNA vaccine against corona.

‘Profit from covid vaccines to research’

According to Koopmans, countries with public financing programs should follow CEPI’s efforts. According to her, it is the only way to structurally free up money if there is temporarily no market.

“At the same time, pharma has made a huge financial blow with the covid vaccines. I would say: as a pharmaceutical company, go crazy and reinvest part of the profit in research into emerging infectious diseases. Then you immediately have a large research capacity for a long time.”