The Guardian has reported that in 2017, major pharmaceutical companies rejected a proposal that could have sped up the development of vaccines against viruses like COVID-19 ahead of an outbreak.
The newspaper referred to a report issued by the Brussels-based think tank Corporate Observatory Europe (COE), which examines decisions made by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a body tasked with improving the EU's pharmaceutical research.
According to the report, European Commission representatives sitting on the IMI claimed that research could “facilitate the development and regulatory approval of vaccines against priority pathogens [which are similar to the novel coronavirus], to the extent possible before an actual outbreak occurs”.
However, the proposal was dismissed by large pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Pfizer, Lilly, and Johnson & Johnson, which are part of IMI.
The COE report claimed that instead of speeding up the development of innovative medicines, the IMI has been “more about business-as-usual market priorities”.
The Guardian cited an unnamed IMI spokeswoman as saying in response to the report that infectious diseases and vaccines remain a priority for the group. She pointed to a €20 million ($21.7 million) project launched in 2015 after the Ebola pandemic, as well as new funding for vaccines released in January.
The spokeswoman said that the report “seems to suggest the IMI has failed in its mission to protect the European citizen by letting pass an opportunity to prepare society for the current COVID pandemic”.
“This is misleading in two ways: the research proposed by the EC in the biopreparedness topic was small in scope, and focused on revisiting animal models and developing in silico models to better define/anticipate the type and level of immune response elicited in animals and humans in order to increase regulators’ confidence in the evidence base for alternative licensing procedures”, she said.
The spokeswoman asserted that the IMI has helped “better prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic through the group’s previous funding related to infectious diseases".
The COE report’s revelations come as companies across the globe are intensifying efforts to try and create an effective vaccine for the coronavirus.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said earlier in May that a COVID-19 vaccine could be approved in roughly a year, while the WHO issued a joint statement in April signed by a group of doctors from the US, the UK, China, and other countries who vowed to collaborate on developing the vaccine "as rapidly as possible".