Three cheers for Big Pharma as it rushes to develop a vaccine

Doctors warn us that we can’t feel truly safe against the novel coronavirus until an effective vaccine is developed. Fortunately, there’s good news on that front. Both in the United States and elsewhere, many vaccines are already either being tested on humans or will be soon.

Two clinical trials are in process in the United States. One underway in Seattle uses two doses injected into the bloodstream while a second, being performed in Kansas City and Philadelphia, merely pricks the skin and is followed by a small electric shock to help the chemicals penetrate deeper into the body. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine are applying to the Food and Drug Administration to put a third potential vaccine into clinical trials soon.

Scientists in Israel might be moving even faster. Researchers at the Migal — Galilee Research Institute had been working on a vaccine against bronchitis in poultry for years and had fortuitously chosen to use a coronavirus strain as the basis for its work. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, they found that strain to be genetically similar to the one found in humans. The vaccine, which is taken orally, is expected to be ready for human testing in a few weeks. The Israeli health minister says it could be available for general use within 90 days if all goes well.

Clinical trials for coronavirus vaccines are also currently underway, or soon will be, in Beijing and the United Kingdom. Many other companies around the world are developing their own vaccines, with more clinical trials to assess patient safety and the drug’s efficacy expected this summer.

All this activity means that pharmaceutical help is on the way. We can’t be sure until after the trials are concluded if any particular drug both works and is safe for human use. But the intense focus means that it’s possible something could be available extraordinarily quickly compared with most drug development.

This rapid activity points to why it’s beneficial to have a large, competitive drug industry. Drug manufacturers often get blasted in the media and by politicians for charging high prices for their wares. Certainly, there are bad actors in the industry, but high prices are also a result of the large amounts of money needed to bring a drug successfully to market. The high prices are needed to lure private capital to invest in these companies. This process means there are many companies with the facilities and trained minds able to focus on the search for a vaccine, and this increases the odds that at least one group will invent something that works.

Companies are also competing to develop treatments for those who are already ill. Those potential drugs are also in or close to clinical trials.

With bad news arriving nearly every hour, it’s easy to overlook these developments. But it’s important not to. The world’s much maligned pharmaceutical industry is expected to come to the rescue at breakneck speed. Let’s treat them as the heroes they are when they ultimately deliver.

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