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Examining the Business of Infectious Diseases in the Time of Zika Virus

Most biotech and pharmaceutical companies focus their research efforts on cures for chronic diseases that plague the majority of the population because that’s where the money lies; however, is the rise in devastating infectious diseases such as Zika redirecting the lens of many companies?

Infectious diseases such as the Zika virus, Chikungunya, Dengue fever, malaria, and even Ebola are causing a certain amount of fear among the general public and stress among those in public health and medicine.

But are they also a profit opportunity for private industry?

In light of the incredible amount of media attention surrounding the Zika virus outbreaks in Brazil and the Caribbean, not to mention the scores of cases in south Florida, industry experts have postulated that biotech and/or pharmaceutical companies involved in research initiatives to develop vaccines to prevent infection and antivirals to treat active disease have the most to gain. After all, the US government has provided several private companies with grant funding to finance R&D efforts on vaccine and drug candidates. Ultimately, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), these grants could make up nearly 40% of the $1.1 billion in federal funding approved by Congress in September to fight the mosquito-borne virus.

“Profits do encourage R&D but the typical drug company spends less than 25% [of revenues] on R&D and most spend less than 20%,” Gerard Anderson, PhD, Professor, Health Policy and Management at the Center for Global Health at Johns Hopkins University told Contagion. “Marketing and profits represent a larger percentage of total spending. It is, however, difficult to devise an alternative that would bring as many new drugs to market as the profit motive.”

Dr. Anderson has published a number of articles on drug development for so-called “neglected diseases” for several peer-reviewed journals. He acknowledges that the Zika virus has presented the field with a unique challenge, given that relatively little is known about the virus and its overall effects on those infected with it. To date, research has confirmed associations between Zika and serious birth defects in babies born to infected mothers, and several studies have linked it to neurologic complications in adults.

On November 3rd, investment advice website ValueWalk published an article that while, “[i]n medicine, we have seen great progress being made by researchers who want to repair the mechanisms of aging… it looks [like] infectious diseases will soon grow in importance… as both a cause of mortality as well as a financial sector.” The article notes the significant progress made in “age-related” conditions such as heart disease in diabetes, predicting that they may soon be “eliminated,” and emphasizes that infectious diseases pose a bigger threat in the future, as they occur in “nature,” and are thus harder to control.

On this latter point, Simon Croft, Professor, Parasitology, Faculty of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London (UK) School of Hygiene and Tropic vehemently disagrees.

“There is [still] more profit in chronic, age-related diseases, where treatment is taken daily or weekly for the rest of a patient’s life,” he told Contagion. Regarding infectious diseases, he added, “Some diseases have been eliminated, such as small pox [and] nearly polio. The aim of treatment or prevention of an infectious disease is a one- or two-shot vaccine or, at most, three days course of treatment.”

Dr. Anderson agrees. “Given the relative number of people with infectious diseases and chronic diseases, the growth is still primarily in chronic diseases,” he explained.

Having said that, both recognize the role potential profits will play in developing weapons in the fight against the Zika virus, although they both have their concerns regarding it. “For Zika and Dengue, there is a worldwide need for vaccine, and any R&D should lead to a profitable outcome,” he said. “This is acknowledged and is why several pharma and biotech are investing in this area.”

Added Dr. Anderson, “When the government gives a company a monopoly by granting them a time-limited patent [on any new drug or vaccine], then the company has to responsibility price drugs for infectious diseases so that everyone has access—or the disease will continue to spread.”

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.