How COVID-19 is evolving the R&D landscape

‘Partnerships will help us beat COVID-19 and the lessons we have learnt can be used in other areas of healthcare’
By Richard Torbett, Chief executive, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

As the world waits for a pandemic exit strategy, we know that the organisations researching and developing medicines and vaccines are our best hope for beating coronavirus.

As new vaccines become a reality, we are seeing scientific partnerships that were forged in the spring leading us out of the pandemic. And among them is a home-grown UK vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

More than 200 global research teams are working on vaccines. Our industry is involved in over two thirds of these projects. Eleven are in phase-3 clinical trials, where the vaccine is tested on thousands of volunteers. One, Pfizer-BioNTech, has already been approved for use by the UK regulator. 

The development is happening in under 12 months, maintaining the same safety and efficacy standards. A combination of intense global focus and expertise, with phases of development and regulation carried out simultaneously, is making this a reality. 

People talk about unprecedented times. Over the past ten months, we’ve seen unprecedented ways of working. Companies are collaborating with each other, with academia and global health systems, and sharing data.

Collaboration key to vaccine success

Fifteen global companies are central to the Gates Foundation’s COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a public-private initiative looking for treatments. To accelerate development, the companies involved agreed to share data of molecular compounds from proprietary libraries. 

As Julie Kim, president of Plasma-Derived Therapies at Takeda said, “unprecedented times call for bold moves.”

Takeda is one of the founding companies of the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, working together on an investigational product made from convalescent plasma, unbranded by any of the participating companies, and now being evaluated as part of a global phase-3 clinical trial.

Seventeen pharmaceutical companies are involved in successful proposals funded by the EU’s COVID-19 Innovative Medicines Initiative, another public-private consortium demonstrating commitment to open data-sharing for COVID treatments and diagnostics.

Companies have pledged to bring vaccines to people wherever they are in the world.  Johnson & Johnson is studying a lead vaccine candidate with plans to bring an affordable vaccine to the public on a not-for-profit basis for emergency pandemic use.

Pfizer and BioNTech have worked at unprecedented speed to develop, test and manufacture a potential first-in-class mRNA-based vaccine. 

The UK’s GSK and France’s Sanofi combined their technological and manufacturing capability to develop a vaccine. The two companies have pledged to work with health authorities and governments around the world to ensure timely and affordable access.

GSK is making its adjuvant tech available to scientists working on candidate vaccines. Adjuvants are of particular importance in a pandemic since they may reduce the amount of vaccine protein required per dose, allowing more doses to be produced, protecting more people.

The need to get the public on-board

The swift government prioritisation and approval for Urgent Public Health Research studies is important.

It is these partnerships that will help us beat COVID-19 and the lessons we learn can be used in other areas of healthcare.

Despite the World Health Organization declaring that only clean water beats vaccines in reducing the burden of infectious diseases, research indicates vaccine hesitancy remains an issue worldwide.

As vaccines are given to millions, they must meet the highest safety standards or companies won’t progress them and regulators won’t approve them.

Amid the misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, we need a collective effort to make sure the public continue to have confidence in them. 

Pharmaceutical companies have a role to tell their story. If we can help people understand the value of vaccines, we stand a much better chance of beating the virus.

Follow the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s campaign #ValuingVaccines

Written by Richard Torbett, Chief executive, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry