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A $4bn fight against next pandemic has started in America

The pandemic is not over but US scientists are preparing to fight the next one with a huge funding of almost four billion dollars.

Borrowing from the model used to create drugs that transformed HIV from a death sentence into a manageable disease, the Biden administration plans to announce Thursday a $3.2 billion plan to stock the medicine cabinet with drugs that would be ready to treat future viral threats — whether a hemorrhagic fever, influenza or another coronavirus.

The Washington Post reports that Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to the administration, and David Kessler, chief science officer for the covid-19 response, began brainstorming the idea late last year.

With remarkably effective vaccines rolling out, their initial focus was on drugs that could make the next pandemic less devastating.

But as virus variants emerged and it became clear that even a historic vaccination campaign wasn’t likely to eradicate the coronavirus, they accelerated the deadline.

“The focus was to reinvigorate the nation’s antiviral program over the next three to five years. What’s become more clear, as the pandemic has come into focus, is we have to do it this fall,” Kessler said.

“We need this set of tools to close out this pandemic. … The hard thing is to recognize with all the success, there’s still several hundred deaths a day.”

The $3.2 billion represents a multiyear investment to jump-start basic science research to develop new drugs and test whether existing drugs show promise.

The funding will support clinical research and manufacturing. The focus initially is on this coronavirus but will expand into collaborative drug discovery programs focused on viruses that have the potential to spark a pandemic.

At the same time, the government has started placing preorders for antiviral drugs for this pandemic — before they have been shown to work. It’s a strategy similar to the one used to encourage vaccine development.

“The aim of the program is to catalyse the development of new medicines to combat covid-19, but also to provide a structure, a durable structure, to prepare from a therapeutic standpoint against any of the pandemic threats,” Fauci said.

Short memories, vanishing viruses
For months, scientists who work on therapies for viruses have debated whether the pandemic will be a wake-up call, an event that triggers sustained investment in an area increasingly neglected as drug companies seek more lucrative targets.

Many have been skeptical much will change, aside from perhaps a temporary surge of drug development against coronaviruses.

“Investors are totally uninterested in antivirals. Even if you can demonstrate you can make a couple billion dollars, nobody cares,” said Ann Kwong, a virologist who played a leading role in developing an antiviral approved against hepatitis C at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, along with an influenza treatment.

“What they really want is a chronic treatment. Nobody ever gets cured of high cholesterol.”
Scientists express hope tinged with doubt that the pandemic will trigger permanent change, including coronavirus researchers who learned firsthand how short attention spans can be.

After severe acute respiratory syndrome emerged in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012, scientists who study the viruses thought it was only a matter of time before another one threatened — but sometimes had trouble convincing funders of the urgency.

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