Is Big Pharma about to make another fortune on the back of coronavirus?
The US government spent more than £13 billion last year funding multinational drugs firms to make Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
The lure of such large sums of public money attracted an initially sceptical industry into doing research. Previously it had thought the venture too risky and feared its profits might suffer.
Part of the agreement with the government was that the intellectual property rights associated with the vaccines would remain with the drugs firms. This will guarantee them profits for decades to come.
Now, Joe Biden's government has announced a new £2.15 billion programme to encourage pharmaceutical firms to develop pills to fight the virus early in the course of infection.
If the pills are a success, millions of people might be spared potentially life-threatening Covid-19 symptoms. The trouble is that so far there is absolutely no evidence that antiviral pills will work.
Almost all completed tests of antiviral medication on hospitalised patients have proved to be a failure.
Only one antiviral has any proven capability—Remdesivir. In some cases the drug can slightly shorten the length of a patient’s infection, but many patients do not respond to it.
That’s why the World Health Organisation has advised doctors not to use the drug as a coronavirus treatment.
But the US department of health is gambling that new research focussing on using antivirals at the very earliest stage of infection will yield results.
To get ahead of any potential rivals, last week Biden’s government announced it would buy 1.7 million doses of a new medicine called Molnupiravir from drugs giant Merck.
The cost for this yet unproven antiviral is a staggering £860 million—more than £50 a pill.
This will undoubtedly present as Biden investing to safeguard the health of the American people. In reality the motives are far from altruistic.
US-based multinationals will be able to drive out competition from Europe and Asia if they patent drugs that can greatly slow or “cure” Covid-19.
The US will also be able to use the drugs as leverage in countries where it is vying with others for influence.
Using state funds to ensure the US economy can better compete with its rivals falls exactly into Biden’s wider strategic and economic planning.
But many leading doctors in Britain remain highly sceptical about the research. They are instead focusing their attention on treatments that will help stop people getting dangerously ill with Covid-19.
The only drugs that have been proven to save lives are ones that target inflammation in the lungs.
Trials by the Recovery research group in Britain this week provided hopeful news. They showed that in patients that have not already mounted their own immune response to infection, giving them extra antibodies can improve their survival rates significantly.
This treatment reduces the length of hospital stays and cuts the chances of having to go on to a ventilator. It also cuts the risk of death by around 20 percent.
But the number of ways of making profit from this knowledge are few. As such major drugs firms are not as yet particularly interested.
It seems in the new great gamble, only treatments that make money really count.