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Volume 37, Issue 12
Amid a widening net of health threats worldwide, alliances forged in research and response may be more critical than ever to stem the tide.
Amid a widening net of global health threats, alliances in research and response may be more crucial than ever
The right business partnership can be critical to any company’s success. Specifically, in the pharmaceutical industry, partnerships between pharma or biotech companies and nonprofit organizations or foundations prove that theory-because by pooling their resources, these entities are working together to combat some of the world’s most serious health problems.
Polio, antibiotic resistance, AIDS, and Ebola are just a few of the global problems these partnerships are helping to fight.
Many of the foundations and nonprofits Pharm Exec spoke with said pharma companies are key partners, because they specialize in what is needed to create and deliver new solutions to global health challenges. Pharma’s essential expertise, such as translating science into products that save lives, safely and effectively testing these treatments, and then manufacturing them in the required quantities, are critical to achieving global health goals.
These types of partnerships are all unique and can make a big difference. Often, the relationships are not just centered around one-off projects. For example, last year, Bayer worked with the CDC Foundation to assist with two critical aspects of the Zika virus response in Puerto Rico. Those included providing women and their partners who want to delay or avoid pregnancy during the Zika outbreak with improved access to a range of contraceptive methods, and giving additional protection to families who want to sleep under mosquito-repelling bed nets. Bayer did this by providing the CDC Foundation with significant product donations of intrauterine devices (IUDs) and oral contraceptives, as well as concentrated mosquito insecticide tablets and insecticide-treated bed nets.
At the time, Dr. Judith A. Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, said in a press release, “This is a comprehensive public-private partnership aimed at helping CDC extend its Zika virus response. … To get ahead of this potentially devastating new threat, we must continue harnessing the resources and expertise of private
sector partners to boost our national and local response efforts.”
According to the CDC Foundation, 138,000 women in Puerto Rico were, at the time, at risk of unintended pregnancy and were not using one of the most effective or moderately effective forms of contraception. Bayer’s donation included up to 50,000 IUDs and 40,000 oral contraceptive units. In addition, the company provided 10,000 bed nets for use in Zika prevention kits for pregnant women and more than 700,000 mosquito-control tablets, which can be used to treat bed nets, curtains, and other household items to repel mosquitoes.
Partnerships span across all diseases and can be especially helpful in the treatment of rare or orphan drug conditions. Take neglected tropical diseases, for example, which are a diverse group of communicable diseases that prevail in tropical and subtropical conditions in 149 countries.
Most recently, a three-pronged partnership struck between the World Health Organization (WHO), the Mundo Sano Foundation, and Chemo Research, a division of Insud Pharma, is helping to make an essential antiparasitic medicine for the treatment of Chagas disease widely accessible to children. Treatment with benznidazole in the early stages of infection can cure this potentially life-threatening condition, but, currently, very few people are able to access diagnosis and treatment services, according to WHO.
Benznidazole, manufactured by Chemo Research, is commonly used as a first-line therapy for Chagas disease. Although it has existed for more than 40 years, the drug was not registered by any world regulatory agency until August of this year, when the FDA approved it for the treatment of children aged 2 to 12. It marked the first-ever approval of a therapy for Chagas disease in the US, where, reportedly, at least 300,000 people are estimated to be affected by the illness.
“We are working to enhance access to this medicine to people who need it the most,” said Silvia Gold, president of the Mundo Sano Foundation, in a press release. “We are proud to have Insud Pharma as a reliable industrial partner capable of expanding quality-assured affordable benznidazole. Our hope is to transform the dynamic of access to treatment for Chagas disease patients throughout the Americas and beyond.”
About six to seven million people worldwide are estimated to be infected with Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease.
With some rare diseases, a medicine donation program is a popular type of partnership. One expert at WHO told Pharm Exec that often the product being donated has existed, but the market was very small. So instead of carving out numerous small markets, filled with patients unable to afford the medication, companies agree to work with a foundation or nonprofit who has direct access to the patient populuaton, and create a donation program.
It’s great to have partnership programs in place for the treatment of global diseases, but what if more of these international health epidemics were completely preventable? That’s the goal of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a public-private coalition launched at the beginning of the year whose goal is to stop future epidemics by speeding the development of new vaccines.
According to CEPI, vaccine development needs to start long before an epidemic so that final clinical trials or emergency deployment can begin swiftly in an outbreak. However, needed vaccines in many such cases aren’t being developed often enough or quickly enough. And contributing to matters are the traditional difficulties in designing vaccines that work and are safe.
CEPI was founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the governments of India and Norway, the medical research charity Wellcome, and the World Economic Forum. It’s an alliance between governments, industry, academia, philanthropy, intergovernmental institutions such as WHO, and civil society.
“We exist to finance and coordinate the development of new vaccines to prevent and contain infectious disease epidemics,” CEPI states on its website. “As epidemics disproportionately affect low-income countries, CEPI will ensure that the vaccines we help to develop are affordable, so that price is never a barrier to access, and they are available to populations with the most need.”
Efforts around vaccine development are strong examples of how pharma companies, governments, and nonprofits are partnering together for a common cause. This is something Rajeev Venkayya, president of the vaccine business unit at Takeda, knows a lot about. Prior to joining the company in 2012 to launch its global vaccine business, building upon a longstanding business in Japan, Venkayya served as director of vaccine delivery for the Global Health Program at the Gates Foundation. There, he was responsible for the foundation’s efforts in polio eradication and new vaccine introduction, and a grant portfolio of $500 million a year. While at the foundation, Venkayya served on the Board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.
Venkayya explains that when it comes to vaccines, public and private entities need each other. In general, nonprofits or governments that have tried to launch their own vaccine have been unsuccessful. By leveraging knowledge from the pharma industry, it could help vaccine R&D advance at a faster pace, Venkayya believes.
Vaccines are pretty well-established, straightforward investments for companies, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges involved. This is especially true with emerging infectious diseases. Developing a vaccine can take eight to 12 years, or more, and the associated costs are steep. Partnering with a group like CEPI, or a foundation, can help eliminate that burden.
It’s that knowledge piece of the puzzle that drives Mei Mei Hu, co-founder and CEO of United Neuroscience. Hu is passionate about developing vaccines that treat and prevent neurological disorders. Her company has built a translational platform to rapidly design and develop targeted immunotherapeutics, leveraging the organization’s endobody vaccine technology. United Neuroscience’s proprietary technologies have successfully commercialized over three billion doses to date in multiple indications and launched one of only a handful of licensed vaccines against an endogenous host protein in the world.
This, Hu told Pharm Exec, could not have been accomplished without partnerships, having enlisted what she says are some of the smartest researchers across the globe.
“Those collaborations are important, because you don’t want to miss out on the expertise of people outside your immediate ecosystem,” says Hu.
That knowledge network could encompass everything from strategic partnerships with academic institutions to informal informational meetings with groups like the Michael J. Fox Foundation about the latest advancements in Parkinson’s disease. Hu is a big proponent of open sourcing and sharing information, acknowledging, like many in her field, that most of the major health issues facing the world today, such as Alzheimer’s, cannot be solved by one person, or a company alone.
Those from both the public and private sectors that Pharm Exec spoke with about the value of forming relationships between nonprofits and industry all stressed that such efforts can make a significant difference in global health. They point to pursuits to almost eradicate polio worldwide as an example of how true global partnerships between governments, nonprofits, foundations, and pharma companies can make an impact. And how those paths paved by global coalitions such as CEPI will be critical to ensuring a worthy battle against future health threats.