Big Pharma wants billions more for COVID-19 funding pot

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Big Pharma companies have the will to create experimental vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, but they also want more financial help from governments to help them push on.

Speaking with the Financial Times (FT), a number of Big Pharma CEOs told the financial newspaper they want greater outside investment and warned that once the pandemic wanes, governments should heed the lessons from swine flu and Ebola and not simply cut funding when it looks like the worst is over.

David Loew, executive vice president of Sanofi Pasteur, said there should be a speedy commitment worth “billions” of dollars to help companies such as his, which is working on a vaccine.

“If industry does not know if there will be a market in 18 months, [it] cannot carry all [the costs]. Industry alone can’t provide all the investment needed now for billions of doses,” he said in an interview with the FT.

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The need for more upfront cash comes as companies need to source raw materials for vaccines and treatments and ramp up manufacturing in a never-before-seen way; if billions of doses are needed in the shortest possible time, everything will need to ramped up to 11. This is not a cheap process.

“The investment required is too large for any company,” said Christophe Weber, CEO of Takeda, which is also working on COVID-19 treatments including potential plasma therapies.

“Society will have to finance this huge investment. My fear is the same as after the [2009 swine] flu pandemic, when everybody loses interest.”

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The U.K. government last week announced it would help with a public-private pact to get new vaccines into the country as soon as possible, though it's not committing major sums directly to pharma companies to this end.

David Ricks, chief of Eli Lilly and current president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, an industry body, echoed the need for more government cash and also rebutted calls from some quarters that Big Pharma firms are using this pandemic to profiteer.

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“People should not be taking advantage. I agree 100 per cent,” he said. “That would be an unethical position in this time of need. But investors give us capital and expect a return.” Ricks also argued that regulators would need to be flexible in passing new treatments and vaccines for the pandemic.