Drug R&D can take many years before suitable vaccines or treatments can be offered. This has posed a huge challenge to those seeking to combat the spread of Ebola. Until the recent outbreak in the Mano River states of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the big pharmaceutical companies had paid Ebola relatively little attention.
Johnson & Johnson and GSK have now stepped up their investment in potential vaccines, but it is disappointing that it has taken a threat by the disease to the West to bring them to this point.
The big pharmaceutical companies have also agreed with the WHO that pricing will not be an obstacle to tackling the disease.
However, US firms have now developed TKM-Ebola and ZMapp, while Japanese Toyama Chemical hopes to carry out clinical trials of its influenza drug, Favipiravir, to combat the disease.
Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of WHO Health Systems and Innovation, says: “As we accelerate, in a matter of weeks, a process that typically takes years, we are ensuring that safety remains the top priority, with production speed and capacity a close second.” The big pharmaceutical companies have also agreed with the WHO that pricing will not be an obstacle to tackling the disease.
GSK and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have developed a vaccine that was tested on 120 people in Switzerland this November.
Kieny says: “These are dosing and safety trials being held in advance of phase 2 and 3 trials currently scheduled for late 2014-early 2015. If shown to be safe and effective, either of the vaccines could be scaled up for production during the first quarter of next year, with millions of doses produced for wide distribution in high-risk countries.”
While Ebola outbreaks have occurred on several occasions in Central Africa over the past 15 years, the disease has not spread as virulently as in this instance further west. However, the WHO has long been clear that the disease poses a huge threat to public health.
Chinese firm Sihuan Pharmaceutical Holdings Group, which is partly owned by investment bank Morgan Stanley, is offering some competition to the established order. It has announced that it will hold clinical trials on its experimental Ebola treatment drug in Africa in the near future.
Chinese aid organisations operating in Africa have already been supplied with the drug and may use it on their own workers if any of them become infected with the disease. The treatment was originally developed by China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences for use by the armed forces, while Sihuan itself was originally controlled by the Chinese military. China’s President Xi Jinping said: “We will continue to work together with the international community to fight against the Ebola epidemic.”
Chinese investment in pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) is far lower than in the US or Western Europe and indeed the sector consistently attracts 15-20% of total global R&D spending. Yet the balance of power is changing. R&D expenditure in China increased by 21% between 2010 and 2012 but was stagnant in North America and Europe over the same period.
Asian investment is not restricted to Indian and Chinese firms. UAE pharmaceutical company Julphar set up its first manufacturing plant outside its home country last year in Addis Ababa, in partnership with Ethiopia’s own Medtech, to produce drugs for the Ethiopian market.
Speaking at the Ethiopia Healthcare Summit in September, Steve Gravenor, the director for the sub-Saharan Africa region at Julphar, said: “Our investments in Ethiopia and Africa will help local governments achieve their Millennial Development Goals – particularly in relation to combating disease, by optimising availability of and accessibility to quality medications, and reducing African markets’ reliance on imported medicines.”
The Gulf firm is now looking to set up partnerships with other African governments, companies and NGOs, in order to expand its operations across the continent. Julphar was set up in 1980 as a generic manufacturer.
Gravenor added: “As a global pharmaceutical company with proven knowledge and expertise, Julphar will focus its investments in Africa more on local manufacturing of much needed treatments, which would enhance the quality of healthcare services provided by African governments for their citizens, and create more job opportunities for local talents.”