Where is the big Pharma Knight riding in to slay Ebola?

In full disclosure my better half works for a big pharma, this is not going to hold me back from writing what I am sure everyone is thinking. It saddens me as someone who worked for big pharma (until 2001) to have to write this.

We are months into the rapidly escalating catastrophe that is Ebola. We have experimental therapeutics that are depleted, and we now have patients in Europe and the US that are critically ill. Thousands have died in Africa. The latest news is that a US patient is taking an experimental broad spectrum antiviral (read not FDA approved) from a small biotech.

But the people who have been incredibly silent are the big pharma companies? Where are they? I cannot think of one article I have read, one news item that even mentions them offering something. I am sure they are, have or are thinking about it. If there was one opportunity to right all those wrongs that seem to get press such as the latest allegation of corruption, Ebola is it.

We hear about the times companies do something for malaria , TB and other neglected diseases – such as: screen their vast compound libraries, dump the thousands of hits into the public domain, open up their patents etc.. But why are they not throwing their compounds at the CDC, the army or whoever can test them against Ebola? Why are the big pharma vaccine makers like GSK and Novartis who have been paid by the government to provide vaccines for Flu pandemics and more not responding quicker? Let me repeat, we knew this was likely not just another small scale Ebola outbreak months ago.

What would it take to organize some effort from the pharma side to show they were responding. Namely we could get drugs and compounds off the shelf from pharmas and test them. The compounds big pharma offered to NCATS for example might be a place to start? Maybe this is happening but the NIH have not communicated this.

I have already highlighted in multiple places what must seem the most astute science ever done that was funded by the government. Namely two studies that independently screened FDA drugs against Ebola in 2013. And yet even this published work is being ignored and the data from screening is not publically accessible. PLOSONE somehow overlooked this. Now if only the data from the FDA approved drugs screens was publically accessible, it could be used for machine learning models to help identify possibly better compounds. Has not a single journalist looked in Pubmed? If there was a time to highlight the need for open data this is it. What about using the various computational approaches out there that could search through the huge corpus of knowledge and suggest compounds to test, or dock compounds into targets for Ebola?

So are big pharma just moving so slowly because that is the way they operate? Or are they caught deer in the headlights like? Could they put something out there via PhRMA (even a small press release) so the general public has some idea they are responding to Ebola in some small way and not waiting for it to go away on its own? Big Pharma may be scared of putting their drugs out there and them having no impact, they may see it as a double hit, the market is small and the publicity around failure might cripple their share prices. Perhaps government could offer some reassurance that this could be done anonymously to avoid any bad publicity.

Who will be the knight that rides into slay the dragon that is Ebola? Will it be a small biotech that has nothing to lose and everything to gain, it will likely not be an NGO or the WHO. If big pharma could find the knight to lead them this could be a battle they might win by marshaling their cumulative brainpower, resources and then perhaps the public will have a new faith in this industry.

This is not a dream, Ebola is the worst nightmare we could imagine. Its going to take big pharma to get involved to end it. Please someone wake them up.


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  1. sean says:

    Chris Southan informed me his blog post on Ebola medicinal chemistry http://cdsouthan.blogspot.com/2014/09/anti-ebola-medicinal-chemistry-time-for.html drew scant attention for whatever reason. People probably not interested in small molecules as an approach?

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