Covid-19: With no prospects for profits, big pharma neglects new infectious diseases

By Jessica Davis Plüss

More companies, including some big Swiss drugmakers, are shifting resources away from emerging infectious diseases into more lucrative areas like cancer treatment. Their business decisions risk leaving gaping holes in the fight against epidemics such as the one caused by the novel coronavirus.

Despite Switzerland’s position as a pharmaceutical and biotech hub, companies based here have so far abstained from high-profile commitments related to the global coronavirus outbreak.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists of Covid-19 vaccine and treatment candidates contain no Swiss company. And none of the Switzerland-based drugmakers have announced major plans to boost R&D into the virus that has so far infected around 100,000 people in some 80 countries.

The wider lack of interest doesn’t come as a surprise to Bernard Pécoul, executive director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DnDi), a non-profit organisation dedicated to finding treatments for diseases that are not a priority to the industry.

“A large number of big pharma companies have abandoned the field of infectious disease. It’s a big concern because we don’t think that this is the end of infectious disease as we see with the latest outbreak,” Pécoul told in Geneva, where his organisation is based.

Since its founding in 2003, DnDi has been on the front lines of efforts to attract investment in populations and diseases that are often ignored. By seeking to re-wire the market-based R&D
model, the group has been able to develop eight new treatments for diseases like sleeping sickness, which threatens millions of people, largely in sub-Saharan Africa.

Their efforts are still miniscule compared to the billions pharmaceutical companies pour into cancer research and rare, deadly diseases like spinal muscular atrophy in hopes of big gene breakthroughs. At the same time, investments in emerging infectious diseases – those outside HIV, malaria and tuberculosis – have dwindled.


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