In the last three decades, no vaccine has been successfully developed outside of the industrial sector. That's because private-sector vaccine makers have the people, experience, and facilities that are crucial to product development, and that do not typically exist in non-profit, academic, or government institutions. Quite simply, today's greatest global health research challenge—finding a vaccine that can prevent AIDS—will not be met unless we can harness the expertise and resources of pharma and biotech manufacturers better.
Several companies have made important contributions to AIDS vaccine research, but few industry programs represent the kind of full-scale, intensive efforts that are needed. A recent IAVI survey of AIDS vaccine R&D spending shows that industry accounted for less than 15 percent of the roughly $650 million spent globally last year. The reasons why are no secret: The science of AIDS vaccines is daunting, the financial investments required are substantial and long term, and the market is far from certain. But there is no benefit in wringing our hands over these realities. We need to identify realistic opportunities for expanded industry involvement.Share experience New resources for AIDS vaccine research from the public and philanthropic sectors, and growing interest among both industrial and middle-income countries, means that there are more opportunities for industry to share its expertise. Organizations are ready to help leverage private-sector expertise and have demonstrated successful mechanisms of partnerships with industry that are win-win. IAVI, for example, partners and provides financing to Seattle-based Targeted Genetics to further develop vaccine candidates and advance them in clinical trials. In exchange, Targeted Genetics maintains intellectual property rights to the vaccine, but agrees—if the vaccine obtains regulatory approval—to sell it at a reasonable price in the developing world. IAVI also has an agreement with Crucell, a Dutch biotech company, whereby the company will develop its AdVac vectors for use in IAVI's AIDS vaccine development program.
The AIDS vaccine field needs access to critical industry functions such as process development, medicinal chemistry, and structural biology. Industry should offer, with appropriate incentives, greater access to chemical or biologic entities that show promise and can be licensed for development as AIDS vaccines. IAVI and many of its partners are able to compensate companies for their help.
Collaborative alliances Industry can develop collaborative relationships with smaller biotechs in industrialized or developing countries as part of broader alliances on product development or manufacture. It's hard to put a value on industry know-how in vaccine design and development, but companies can make an enormous contribution by agreeing to allow staff to participate in ways that assist non-profit developers.
Appropriate incentives Industry also can help IAVI and other organizations define a policy research and advocacy agenda that will generate the appropriate incentives and protections that industry says it needs to expand its investments in AIDS vaccine research. For example, there is growing international support for the creation of advance purchase commitments for priority vaccines and medicines, and the concept is likely to be discussed at the G8 summit next month. However, companies can help design advanced purchase commitments that will truly be useful to industry. Pharma also can partner with health advocates to support needed funding, incentives, procurement guarantees, and liability protections from governments to promote private-sector investment in research on the diseases of the developing world.
The humanitarian imperative of finding an AIDS vaccine means every sector involved in research, including industry, has to think differently about how we work together. Increased leadership from the pharma industry, matched with growing public commitment, can significantly accelerate the search for an AIDS vaccine. However, without more industry expertise injected into the effort, the search for a vaccine will be too slow. With greater partnership between industry, government and academia, there is every reason to expect that the development of an effective AIDS vaccine will be achieved, and that the greatest disease threat of our time will be conquered through a new model of research collaboration.
Seth Berkley, MD is president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. He can be reached at email@example.com