COVID Blame Games Give Way to Lesson Learning

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 7

Summits, proposals outline advice on response to future pandemics.

Just as there has been no shortage of finger-pointing as countries struggled to respond to the health threats of COVID-19, there is now no shortage of advice on what everyone should do to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Inevitably, the pharmaceutical sector has been at the center of much of these discussions, facing both accusations of avaricious exploitation of monopoly positions and praise for rapid development of vaccines. As the rate of infections appears to be peaking—at least in the richer countries that host most of the innovative drug industry–it is a matter of conjecture just how much of the advice will actually turn into policy when the dust of COVID settles.

The EU was quick off the mark with the Global Health Summit that it co-hosted with Italy in late May, when G20 health ministers committed themselves to “global solidarity” and put their names to the “Rome Declaration,” urging improved healthcare provision and scaled-up efforts to achieve universal access to affordable tools against the virus. But it also put in a strong plea for the need to “build on science and evidence-based policies,” and highlighted “the importance of continued investment in research and innovation.” The sentiments were subsequently endorsed by G7 health ministers and then by G7 leaders in June.

The UK got into the act with the plan that it drafted for G7 leaders on a rapid response to future pandemics. This outlined the goal of reducing the impact of future pandemics by making diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines available within 100 days, and set out an ambitious list of prerequisites. It mercilessly catalogued insufficient investment in novel technologies, inadequate regulatory pathways, indifferent standards, underdeveloped infrastructure, and widespread risk aversion. And it called for targeted research investment, institutionalized partnerships in manufacturing capacity, an international clinical trials network, streamlined assessment and approval procedures, normalization of sophisticated diagnostic testing, and stable and generous financing.

Before June was over, the EU had delivered its own take: “Drawing the early lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic,” which it described as the “honest assessment that is essential if real lessons are to be drawn at the policy and political level.” It enumerated the difficulties that were encountered in scaling up manufacturing and production capacity, in dependencies on global supply chains, and in the lack of a permanent integrated approach to research, development, market authorization, production, and supply. “A longer-term solution is needed,” the EU concluded.

So it recommended—in addition to broader suggestions on surveillance systems—a range of improvements to boost pharmaceutical sector capacity. These extended from seamless links between clinical and public health data and stepping up investment to more agile procurement, and from closer coordination among authorities to more effective incentives for innovation. It urged the permanent establishment of a large scale, flexible, well-resourced platform offering strengthened support and simplification for multi-center clinical trials and focused support for research and manufacturing technology improvements. “We can put in place frameworks to make our response more effective and our structures more resilient,” it pleaded.

Only days later, the EU–US summit led to a further round of commitments, promises, and proposals for recovering from the pandemic’s effects and for preparing to avert a repetition of the damage done. Again, the pharma sector featured prominently in the proposals, with “A renewed Transatlantic partnership” that comprised a joint taskforce on manufacturing and supply, “to deepen cooperation and identify and resolve issues around expanding vaccine and therapeutics production capacity.”

Something concrete may emerge from all this: the G20 Leaders’ Summit in October is scheduled to review a report on progress, and a global pandemic preparedness treaty is under discussion.

But whatever benefits may emerge in the shape of improved investment, infrastructure, or operating context for the pharma industry will be counterbalanced by the ever-increasing attacks on the IP system that provides those temporary monopolies that provoke so much ire among so many with no direct stake in the industry. The pharma sector has covered itself in glory over the last year or so by its prodigious and largely successful efforts to combat COVID. But its very success has attracted renewed focus on—and resentment over—its business model, and the consequent pressures on patents and pricing will present it with challenges that will be every bit as demanding as combating the coronavirus.

Reflector is Pharmaceutical Executive’s correspondent in Brussels

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