Public and private researchers hunt coronavirus cure, despite weak profit motive
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Public and private researchers hunt coronavirus cure, despite weak profit motive

Firms racing to develop diagnostic tests, vaccines, anti-viral treatments may be more interested in prestige, publicity and financing in the future than immediate monetary gain

A medical worker wearing a protective suit waits near an entrance of a public housing estate during an evacuation of residents amid a coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, February 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
A medical worker wearing a protective suit waits near an entrance of a public housing estate during an evacuation of residents amid a coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, February 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

AFP — Researchers both public and private have launched efforts to combat the novel coronavirus that has already infected over 66,000 people and China, and are likely motivated by more than financial gain.

Researchers are working in three main areas: developing diagnostic tests, developing a vaccine, and testing of anti-virals as a treatment for those infected.

Major public research laboratories such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), non-profit foundations like the Pasteur Institute in France as well as universities like the University of Melbourne in Australia have started working on the coronavirus.

Biotech firms have also jumped in, such as Moderna Therapeutics et Inovio Pharma, which were selected by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global alliance financing and coordinating the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.

US biotech firm Gilead is meanwhile working with Chinese authorities on the potential use of remdesivir, which it developed as a treatment for Ebola, for the novel coronavirus.

Some pharma giants have also offered their help, such as Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which said it would make available its adjuvant technology that helps the body produce a stronger immune response to vaccines.

In the United States, Johnson and Johnson has said it will collaborate with public researchers to accelerate development of a vaccine, while in France Sanofi has lent its expertise to CEPI.

Overall, public and private researchers are collaborating, of which the CEPI is a good illustration.

A security guard wearing a protective face mask checks the temperature of a cleaning woman amid coronavirus fears in Hong Kong, Feb. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

While vaccines may be very important products they are not very lucrative ones as they are usually sold at low prices.

Most pharmaceutical firms have chosen to concentrate on developing drugs for cancer and rare diseases, where the prices are much higher, with some costing as much as $2 million per treatment.

“The vaccine business in general represents 2 percent of the global drug market,” said economist Claude Le Pen who focuses on the health sector.

“If a laboratory finds a therapy, in the current climate there will be intense pressure for the treatment to be sold at a low cost,” he added.

Added to that is the risk that after months of work to develop and test a treatment the epidemic could long be over.

Vaccines have the potential to strike big, however — the French government alone spent 380 million euros ($413 million) for vaccines against the H1N1 swine flu in 2009-2010.

On Wall Street, the shares in biotech firms Moderna and Inovio shot higher after their coronavirus work was announced, although they later pulled back.

A man is transferred from the World Dream cruise ship to an ambulance at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on February 5, 2020, as health officials conduct inspections in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak across China. (Philip FONG/AFP)

Researchers may be motivated to find a coronavirus solution by more than pure profit, however.

“In terms of public and government relations, for a laboratory it is logical to say ‘we are health actors and we’ll take care of you,'” said Jean-Jacques Le Fur, a pharmaceutical industry specialist at investment bank Bryan, Garnier & Co.

“There is also scientific prestige. You shouldn’t underestimate professional motivation,” he added.

Biotech companies that succeed in adapting a vaccine or antiviral treatment quickly will be able to more easily attract financing for their own projects, Le Fur noted.

One concern voiced by France’s pharmaceutical academy voiced this week is that Asia produces most of the active ingredients used in drugs. Some 80 percent of the active components used in EU medicines come from third countries, with India and China alone accounting for 60%.

European pharmaceutical companies said there is no reason to panic.

“In general we have several suppliers for key ingredients in order to reduce the risk of supply disruptions and the situation in China is no different,” said France’s Sanofi.

The coronavirus outbreak, which began in the Chinese province of Hubei, has infected more than 67,000 people globally and has killed over 1,500. The vast majority of infections and deaths have been in China.

The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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