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Big Pharma's Fight Against the Coronavirus Pandemic: Good News and Bad News

By Keith Speights - Updated Mar 19, 2020 at 9:57AM

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The battle to defeat the coronavirus will be won. But victory won't come as quickly as anyone would like.

Big pharma is "working around the clock" to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic. That was the first main point that Steve Ubl, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), made in his comments in a teleconference on Wednesday evening outlining the steps the pharmaceutical industry is taking regarding the global health crisis.

Ubl was joined on the call by executives from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK 0.01%), Eli Lilly (LLY 0.45%), Pfizer (PFE 1.75%), Sanofi (SNY -0.32%), and Takeda Pharmaceutical (TAK 0.49%). There's both good news and bad news about the pharma industry's battle against the coronavirus. 

Vials of blood samples with one showing a label with "coronavirus" printed on it

Image source: Getty Images.

Good news

The best news of all was that Ubl said that he's "confident our industry will achieve the shared goal to beat the virus." He listed four specific efforts that members of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's trade group, are taking right now in the fight against the coronavirus disease COVID-19.

  1. Helping develop diagnostics for determining if individuals are infected by the novel coronavirus.
  2. Screening existing medications to identify potential treatment alternatives for COVID-19.
  3. Developing new therapies to target COVID-19.
  4. Developing vaccines to immunize against novel coronavirus infection.

Different drugmakers are involved in different ways in these efforts. Lilly's Daniel Skovronsky said that his company is working with the state of Indiana to accelerate testing in the state and is piloting drive-through testing centers. Clement Lewin with Sanofi noted that the big drugmaker is evaluating Kevzara, a drug already approved for treating rheumatoid arthritis, as a potential treatment for pneumonia caused by COVID-19.

Several pharmaceutical companies are developing new antiviral therapies to target COVID-19. For example, Takeda's Julie Kim highlighted the work her company is doing to research a hyperimmune drug that could provide protection against coronavirus infection.

Others are hoping to move COVID-19 vaccines into clinical testing in the near future. Pfizer has partnered with small biotech BioNTech to develop an experimental vaccine that could advance to a phase 1 clinical study in late April.

Ubl stressed that the industry has been able to move so quickly because of the years of research and development that drugmakers have invested in. And while these companies are in business to make a profit for their shareholders, Ubl said that he "doesn't think affordability will be a problem" with any therapies or vaccines that are effective against COVID-19. 

Bad news

Now for the bad news. Although no one on the PhRMA call stated it directly, the efforts that are under way by drugmakers might not yield fruit quickly enough to help all that much with the current pandemic.

When asked how long it would be before a drug or vaccine is available outside of clinical trials, there was no warm-and-fuzzy answer. Julie Kim said that Takeda hopes to have a therapy ready within nine to 18 months. Pfizer's Mikael Dolsten noted that vaccines will take longer to test than antiviral drugs.

The problem is that the worst of the coronavirus outbreak could be over before any treatments or vaccines are developed -- too late to help very much. China has already begun to report fewer new COVID-19 cases less than three months after the novel coronavirus was first identified as the cause of serious illness in the country.

Another potential issue for drugmakers relates to clinical trials of other drugs not related to the coronavirus efforts. GSK Vaccines Chief Medical Officer Thomas Breuer acknowledged that his company isn't recruiting for additional patients in ongoing vaccines trials in countries that are effectively under lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A near-term hope

Overall, the pharmaceutical industry executives sounded cautiously optimistic while trying to not understate the challenges. Both Steve Ubl and Pfizer's Dolsten referred to what could be the best near-term hope in the fight against the coronavirus -- Gilead Sciences' (GILD 0.29%) antiviral drug remdesivir.

Ubl noted that remdesivir "is being used extensively" with patients already in clinical trials. He added that results from studies of the drug are expected "in a very short period of time," likely in April. Dolsten also mentioned that there's a lot of interest in seeing the efficacy for remdesivir in treating COVID-19.

Pharma stocks have taken a beating with the coronavirus-fueled market crash, including shares of most of the companies represented in the PhRMA conference call on Wednesday. There's likely to be continued volatility for a while for all of the stocks.

But drugmakers are working closely with governments and with each other to accelerate the development of effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Whichever organizations are first to launch products that make a difference in the fight against the coronavirus, everyone in the world will be a winner as a result of their efforts.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Thomas Breuer is Chief Medical Officer of GlaxoSmithKline. He is actually CMO of GSK Vaccines. The Fool regrets the error.

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Stocks Mentioned

Pfizer Inc. Stock Quote
Pfizer Inc.
PFE
$52.55 (1.75%) $0.91
Sanofi Stock Quote
Sanofi
SNY
$50.02 (-0.32%) $0.16
Eli Lilly and Company Stock Quote
Eli Lilly and Company
LLY
$328.63 (0.45%) $1.45
GSK Stock Quote
GSK
GSK
$43.30 (0.01%) $0.01
Gilead Sciences, Inc. Stock Quote
Gilead Sciences, Inc.
GILD
$62.52 (0.29%) $0.18
Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited Stock Quote
Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited
TAK
$14.23 (0.49%) $0.07
BioNTech SE Stock Quote
BioNTech SE
BNTX
$157.95 (-1.91%) $-3.08

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