Express Pharma

Open Science: Key to combat zoonosis

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Largely opaque and proprietary R&D environments in the life sciences sector need to make way for strategies facilitated by sustainable investment models, open sourcing and multi-lateral partnerships, to deal with a growing threat from infectious/zoonosis diseases

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” These words by Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin describe the current scenario to a ‘T’.

Most of us have seen more disruptions over the last few weeks than probably ever before in our lifetime, especially if one is a millennial or younger. Yet, these times are also a watershed in terms of the lessons for mankind. The impact and implications of the coronavirus pandemic will shape new norms and mindsets, approaches and agendas worldwide for a long time to come. 

Hopefully, it will also usher a more cohesive approach to the way we practise and publish scientific research. Because it is critical, especially in the life sciences industry to battle a growing threat from diseases of zoonotic origin.

Let’s look at some of the major factors that demand this shift:

Massive socio-economic fallouts of pandemics: Prashant KhadayatePractice Head of Healthcare at GlobalData shares“A 2019 joint report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank estimated the impact of pandemics to cost to 2.2 per cent – 4.8 per cent of global GDP ($3 trillion), and this was estimated even before COVID-19 pandemic. The report further notes that, in such an event, South Asia’s GDP could potentially fall by two per cent ($53 billion), and sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP by 1.7 per cent ($28 billion).”

He explains the devastating impact of pandemics on the world with two more examples:  

  • In 2009, the H1N1 influenza pandemic in Mexico also had a profound economic impact. The outbreak directly affected tourism, the service sector, retail trade, transport, entertainment, the agricultural industry (particularly pig farmers), and depressed international investment. The outbreak is estimated to have reduced economic activity by 0.3 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product (i.e. between $2.7 and $4.5 billion)
  • In 2002/2003, SARS spread to 28 countries, affected around 8500 people worldwide, and claimed 800 lives. The numbers were relatively small compared with the 1.8 million people who die of diarrhoeal diseases each year and most of them are children. However, the economic impact of SARS on the global economy was enormous – an estimated $50–140 billion and thus its impact went well beyond those who were infected with the virus.

This current COVID-19 outbreak has also shown us that the losses can be substantial, globally causing trillions in short-term damage with likely long-term socio-economic implications,” he adds. 

Rohitashwa Prasad, Partner, J Sagar Associates elaborates, “Economies come to a halt, people across social strata lose jobs, and supply chains are disrupted causing shortages even for necessities such as food and medicines. The complex web of integration of the global economy ensures that these fallouts spread worldwide almost as fast as the pandemic itself. COVID-19 is a live example where we are seeing these issues unfolding in varying degrees across the world.”

Shifting focus of pharma companies: Over the past decade, many pharma companies had shifted their focus from infectious diseases to more areas like oncology, cardiac care and other lifestyle diseases. Explaining why, Prasad states, “Treatment for infectious diseases typically lasts for much less time than for chronic diseases – a week or 10 days compared to months or even a lifetime for the latter. Also, since infectious diseases are regarded as a public health issue, with a much greater incidence in poor countries, the likelihood that drugs to treat these will be subject to price controls is higher. Hence the returns that a drug company can expect on R&D expenses for developing drugs to combat infectious diseases is disproportionately lower.”

Secondly, he points out, “Vaccine development to prevent pandemics has not been a priority for Big Pharma because these are not profitable products in their portfolio. Firstly, the research and development, and manufacturing of vaccines are more expensive compared to other drugs. For example, clinical trials for vaccines take more time and are riskier. Secondly, a vaccine by its very nature is required not more than two or three times in the lifetime of a person. Thus, on balance, the cost-benefit and risk-reward profiles are skewed towards the former.” 

But, this move has left the world exposed to outbreaks such as the one caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Accelerating threat from zoonotic sources: “The world is staring at a looming infectious/zoonotic diseases crises,” points out Prasad. Khadayate also reiterates, “It is difficult to predict which pathogen will spur the next epidemic or pandemic. No one can predict where it will originate and at what level it will impact in terms of infection.”

Prasad cites AMR as an example to explain his point. “Imprudent use of antibiotics in the livestock industry for boosting production rather than for treating diseases, their indiscriminate prescription by doctors, and improper unsupervised use by patients, has resulted in the worldwide growth of antibiotic resistance bacteria. Several common infectious diseases already are untreatable by existing antibiotics. Many very important antibiotic drugs, it is feared, will lose their efficacy in the not-too-distant future. A 2019 U.N. report has warned that drug-resistant bacteria can cause up to 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and damage the global economy,” apprises Prasad. 

Reimagining R&D with Open Science

Thus, for multiple reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it imperative to reimagine R&D in the life sciences completely. It is glaringly obvious that the largely opaque and fortified proprietary R&D environments in the pharma and healthcare industries need to make way for more open strategies facilitated by differentiated investment models, data-sharing, a broader collaboration between stakeholders and multi-sectoral partnerships, especially in the area of infectious diseases/zoonotic diseases. 

As Khadayate explains, “Research on infectious diseases considered to be global health challenges need to be broadly pursued in partnership with governments and philanthropic organisations through the public-private model.”

And, COVID-19 has highlighted that Open Science facilitated by Open Source, could be the key to solutions for public health challenges. Some leading proponents of these concepts explain how. 

Enable faster drug development and discovery: New drug discovery and development is a long-process spanning over a decade and costing over $2 billion approximately. Reportedly, the average rate of failure in R&D is 95 per cent! However, open science strategies, have the potential to usher more efficient ways to research the life sciences sector. They can help fast-track drug and vaccine discovery and development by enabling the global scientific community to explore a wide range of indications and diseases in parallel and share learnings quickly through publications. This, in turn, reduces risks of failure, allows the researchers to focus on the most encouraging indications, optimises the effort, as well as minimises wastage and duplication.

Jaykumar Menon, International Chair and Co-Founder, Open Source Pharma Foundation outlines, “Open source has come to the fore. The standard models are too slow. We cannot wai