Science & Technology

Smoke and mirrors on COVID-19 drugs?

In a brutal fight to corner the successful outcome of research, governments are openly using money power to grab the first rights to promising vaccines and therapies

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Thursday 25 June 2020

It is getting really difficult to be optimistic about the likelihood of vaccines and drugs to treat the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), much less the hope of securing equitable access. True, there has been strong endorsement of Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada’s proposal to create a voluntary patent pool to share the rights to all technologies useful in detecting, preventing, and controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as long as it remains voluntary, it is likely to remain a pious wish.

What is happening instead is a brutal fight to corner the successful outcome of research. Governments are openly using money power to grab the first rights to promising vaccines and therapies, in a strategy that is based on the ability to fund companies the most in the final lap of research.

In a pandemic it seems all is fair, especially if you are the United States and have plenty of money ($1 billion and more) to throw at pharma companies which are frontrunners in the race to develop vaccines and treatments.

But no less distasteful is the way the drug industry and research institutes have been manipulating the markets to keep investors happy. No data or peer-reviewed research is published, but press releases are released at calibrated intervals to keep the stories of imminent success always in the news. It keeps the money tap flowing.

If the early scuffles over getting priority supplies of tests and critical equipment like ventilators and personal protection gear for medical workers have been unseemly, the brazen attempt to corner the vaccine production — although not a single candidate has yet proved its efficacy in clinical trials — is proving to be sordid.

The US’ attempts in this regard have been notorious and egregious. Starting with an attempt to woo a German company in March, the Trump administration has not flagged in its efforts to make its money talk despite outrage from the Europeans.

In April, it almost succeeded in corralling French pharma giant Sanofi’s leading vaccine candidate by providing it a generous amount. But CEO Paul Hudson had to retract after European Union leaders accused the company of being soulless and disloyal for forgetting the tens of millions of public funding it had received from the European governments.

Hudson was also given a personal dressing down by the French President who said that any vaccine it produced should be a “public good for the world, not subject to the laws of the market”.

If Sanofi was chastened enough to promise that no country would get preferential access, it has not stopped the US from following the same strategy with other firms.

Perhaps, some would argue that there is nothing wrong in Trump using its money muscle to protect its citizens who have been the worst hit by the pandemic. But how does one excuse the questionable tactics adopted by the drug companies and researchers to keep the money flowing in?

For instance, Moderna of the US and the Oxford Group issue periodic press releases that hype their progress without providing data or any scientific review. Leading newspapers publish their claims and instantly market valuations soar while governments pour in more funds.

Whether the vaccine works or not is all in the future but right now hype has also helped a few company officials to make as much as $ 29 million in stock sales. The pandemic is good for some.

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