The world needs an anti coronavirus drug as soon as possible—and there is something the United States government can do right now to achieve that.
STAT News recently reported that most big pharma companies have been reluctant to join the search for a vaccine that treats 2019-nCoV, the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China and has quickly spread around the globe. Given that the costs of vaccine manufacturing tend to run high—and the chances of profit, much lower—their lack of interest was to be expected.
But there is a bigger issue at play. While 2019-nCoV may be the disease making headlines today, coronaviruses as a whole present a much more formidable threat to human health. This is the third coronavirus, after SARS and MERS, to attack us, and we’ll no doubt be hit again. Big pharma should be focused on finding a drug to prevent and treat the family of coronaviruses. Instead, they’ve taken a back seat.
Our government leaders could change that.
It is well within the power of the United States government to issue an open contract at this very minute that guarantees, to whichever pharmaceutical companies willing and able, a sizeable purchase order for one broad spectrum, anti coronavirus drug. Other countries, China especially, could follow suit. In targeting the coronavirus more generally, rather than a single strain, such a drug could be deployed for immediate use and stockpiled for future outbreaks.
Authorized financing for the contract could feasibly come from Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund, a program established in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In the fifteen years since, Project BioShield has functioned as a means of buoying up the Strategic National Stockpile with medical products and treatments that can protect Americans from “modern, evolving health security threats”—including new and emerging diseases.
Imagine what would happen if the United States government actually took initiative and pursued this strategy, enlisting major players like the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help shepherd it forward. Pharmaceutical companies, allured by the promise of profit, would apply for the contract in droves, emptying out everything in their freezers for testing.
Once clinical research is complete and safety requirements met, government and public health authorities would accelerate review and production to swiftly bring the drug to market. I predict that within two months—three months tops—an anti coronavirus treatment would be available.
This proposal isn’t without precedent, and the journey from lab to market of azidothymidine (AZT), the first AIDS treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration, provides an excellent case in point. AZT began as a cancer drug that, in the 1960s, was shelved indefinitely after mice trials proved ineffective. When it became evident two decades later that AIDS was an incredibly lethal infectious disease, pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Company resurrected the drug as part of their effort to identify anti HIV agents.
In 1987, states secured $30 million in emergency funding from Congress to distribute the drug as fast as possible. Had the United States government, big pharma, and public health agencies not eventually triangulated their efforts to stop the spread of AIDS, the nationwide rollout of AZT would have come much later than it did. Now, we need to do the same—not just for a 2019-nCoV vaccine, but a broad spectrum anti coronavirus drug.