Apr 30, 2020

Drug Companies’ Focus on Most Profitable Treatments Hampers Pandemic Readiness

Big Pharma neglected antiviral and vaccine research and development (R&D) for years in the run-up to the COVID-19 pandemic — despite frequent warnings from public health experts.

The reason? The industry doggedly pursued, and pushed for public funding, into treatments viewed as more lucrative.

In fact, “the pharmaceutical industry has gradually abandoned vaccine development over the past 50 years as it focused on lifestyle drugs and treatments for chronic conditions such as cancer that are in consistent demand,” Truthout reports.

The numbers help showcase the extent to which Big Pharma bypassed investment in antiviral and vaccine research:

Just One Percent: Just one percent of all global pharmaceutical R&D was dedicated to “emerging infectious diseases.” (“New Products Alone Are Not Enough. Pharma Can Do More to Halt COVID-19,” Access to Medicine Foundation, 4/14/20)

Down Four Percent: The number of vaccines under development has declined four percent over the past five years, while oncology treatments under development rose by 63 percent and pain and dermatology medications increased by 63 percent. (“The Changing Landscape Of Research And Development,” IQVIA, 4/19)

17th Place: In 2018, antiviral treatments ranked in 17th place among categories of therapeutic drug treatments with research and development products. (“Pharma R&D Annual Review 2019,” Pharmaprojects, 2/19)

What comparatively little investment has been made in vaccine and antiviral R&D has largely been funded by American taxpayers — but even that has taken a backseat to other areas of focus.

2.6 Percent: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), public investment for infectious diseases in 2019 accounted for $6.3 billion, or just 2.6 percent, out of $239 billion total spent on pharmaceutical R&D. (“Estimates Of Funding For Various Research, Condition, And Disease Categories (RCDC),” National Institutes Of Health, 2/24/20)

Previous outbreak episodes demonstrate why there has been so little appetite from Big Pharma to prepare for infectious disease outbreaks. “Drug companies have historically pleased investors by promoting vaccine development programs during disease outbreaks, then quietly dropping them later,” Truthout continues.

Despite an outbreak raging in the Republic of Congo, the British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline recently gave up its effort to develop a vaccine for Ebola and handed off its research to a nonprofit lab.  Ebola is deadly but relatively rare globally, and the market was too small to generate significant profits.  In 2017, the massive French drug maker Sanofi pulled out of a partnership with the U.S. Army to develop a vaccine for the mosquito-borne Zika virus. 

“Big Pharma’s business model is one of maximizing shareholder value — and it hinges on short-term returns,” [Dana Brown, director of The Next System Project] said in an email. “There’s little if any gain for shareholders when companies invest in vaccine development…. A number of companies report losing money on Ebola or SARS vaccines programs.”

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