The need to invest in antiviral drug development

Investment in the development of drugs against Covid-19 has been scant

Muhammad Zaheer April 17, 2021
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS

Why doesn't Pakistan have its own Covid-19 vaccine? With around 5,000 new infections reported each day and only 0.5% of the population vaccinated so far, the situation might aggravate during Ramazan due to the rapidly spreading virus strain and people hardly observing any SOPs during social and religious gatherings. At the current rate of 26,471 doses per day, it would take 11 years to vaccinate 50% of the population and develop herd immunity. While the government plans to locally produce a Chinese vaccine to speed up the process, it is time to consider treatment and cure options. But do we have any?

Researchers have warned for years about the possible outbreak of deadly viral diseases that could bring nations to their knees. The advent of SARS-CoV-1 in 2003, causing severe illness of the lower respiratory tract, was a clear warning. However, little was done to develop drugs that could contain the virus as the threat waned. In 2012, when another coronavirus (MERS) emerged in the Middle East, governments and industry paid little heed as luckily the virus was contained. Resultantly, we ended in a global pandemic with an empty medicine cabinet.

Influenza viruses, coronaviruses, and others are potential threats for future pandemics. Viral diseases such as dengue and hepatitis are also locally prevalent. Therefore, the discovery and development of broad-spectrum antiviral drugs are nationally and globally relevant. Although it would be nearly impossible to develop a drug capable of killing all viruses, developing drugs capable of inhibiting a family of viruses seems viable.

The development of vaccines and medicines starts at research laboratories within universities or R&D organisations. Potential compounds are prepared at these laboratories and screened against virus inhibition. Shortlisted candidates are then tested on animals before being tried on humans. After successful human trials, the drugs need to be approved by regulator authorities.

Why don't we have our own vaccines and drugs against Covid-19? Mainly because we never invested in drug discovery and development research. We hardly spend 1% of the GDP on health which shows that health has never been our priority. The development of drugs and vaccines starts at universities, R&D organisations which are struggling to sustain their research due to scarce funds.

If we compare vaccine development with drug discovery and development, Pakistani universities are doing much better in the latter. Recently, several potential hit compounds that inhibit virus growth were identified using computational methods. However, testing screened compounds for virus inhibitions requires biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) labs, scarcely available in the country.

Government agencies must fund lab-scale studies of potential drug candidates — the entire drug discovery process is a bottleneck. Human trials of potential hit compounds originating from research labs would not be possible without the industry and government's generous investment.

While vaccine development has been achieved in record time with the help of generous investment from developed countries, investment in the development of drugs against Covid-19 has been scant. However, the situation is changing, and global attempts to develop drugs for the treatment of Covid-19 have intensified recently. A worldwide consortium of 20 life science companies intends to make an organisation to foster drug development. The US National Institute of Health (NIH) is also investing heavily to make Covid-19 drugs.

Pakistan, desperately trying to contain the deadly virus, could also invest in developing drugs as they will play a life-saving role in pandemics. With the government's support, universities could excel in screening potential Covid-19 drug candidates while pharmaceutical companies should invest in drug discovery and development. 



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