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Vol 25, No. 08, August 2021   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
COLUMNS
Lessons From COVID-19 Vaccines – Developing Medical Therapies Does Not Need to Take Decades
While other vaccines have taken years, COVID-19 has seen the development of COVID vaccines in under a year. What does this mean for us going forward?

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the world with the most significant health crisis in a generation. Across the globe, researchers, health organisations, and medical professionals have worked tirelessly to successfully create vaccines to bring down the mortality rate and to allow us to manage this new virus, which is now part of life.

The global scientific community has taken up the challenge and achieved outstanding success. For this, they should be applauded and can be extremely proud. However, it’s not just been the medical professionals and researchers that have been involved in this race. Governments, investors, corporate partners, manufacturers, and more have all played their part in contributing to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.

That we have been able to develop at least five viable COVID-19 vaccines in under a year is unprecedented in human history and represents some of the most significant innovations ever seen in drug development.

Rightly, billions of dollars have been poured into vaccine research by governments across the globe. Thousands of hours of completing clinical trials, accelerating research, and meeting complex regulatory requirements have been condensed into a comparatively short timeframe.

Developing a vaccine typically takes over a decade. The chickenpox and influenza vaccines took 28 years to develop, and it took five years to develop a vaccine for Ebola. It is truly remarkable that the Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford vaccines are approved for use in most Western nations, with massive vaccination programmes already well underway globally.

When confronted with the most significant global health threat in over 100 years, the scientific community, governments, and drug developers united and responded in record time. Safety standards have not been compromised.

The vaccine response to the global COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates that we can remove unnecessary bureaucracy from the drug development system when we have the will to do so. This is a vital lesson when we look at other major diseases, which are responsible for killing significantly more people globally than COVID-19.

To date, over 4 million people have died from COVID-19. To put this into perspective, cancer is responsible for an estimated 9.5 million deaths annually, equating to one in every six deaths, while cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year and accounting for 31 per cent of all deaths worldwide.

With COVID-19, we have seen a willingness by governments to remove barriers, seamless collaboration between pharmaceutical companies, research and clinical organisations, as well as capital support, all come together and brought to bear in the fight against COVID-19. If we can harness these same factors and redirect them, I see no reason why we couldn’t be just as successful in combatting other major diseases.

Patient advocacy groups are increasingly vocal about the need to speed up potentially life-saving drug development, particularly for genetic diseases, caught up in a lengthy registration process with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Looking at drug development over the past 20 years, from the time of showing promise in in vitro studies, all the way through to regulatory approvals, this process on average takes eight years. More often it’s closer to 11 to 12 years. It’s heartbreaking when we see genetic diseases put timeframes on patients’ lives.

The red tape and enormous cost of regulatory requirements and clinical trial timelines mean many promising drugs don’t see it through to market. The rapid pace of the drug development response to COVID-19 has shown exactly what can happen when red tape is removed to supercharge drug development timelines.

I’m certainly not advocating for lowering standards, but rather emphasising what is possible when finance, focus, and urgency is applied to drug development.

We must harness the momentum we have built in rapid drug development and take this lesson from the pandemic. It would be tragic to see a return to the slow drug development timeframes in 12 or so months when the majority of people have been vaccinated. This is one aspect of the pandemic that would be a real shame to see return to normal.

It’s not about shortcutting the approval processes, it’s about working as efficiently as possible to ensure life-saving drugs get to those patients, who have a desperate need for them. Importantly, improved therapies also lower the cost of caring for these patients and with Australia’s healthcare costs recently surpassing 10 per cent of GDP, these savings are needed to maintain the standard of healthcare we all enjoy in the lucky country.

About the Author

Dr. Chris Nave is the Managing Director of Brandon Capital and CEO of the Brandon Capital-managed Medical Research Commercialisation Fund (MRCF), Australia and New Zealand’s largest life science investment fund with AU$800m under management.

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