Rokotteet olivat vuosikymmenten ajan lääkebisneksen kuolleessa kulmassa. Teknologia oli vanhaa, investoinnit ja tuotot olemattomia. Monet lääkeyritykset möivät koko rokotedivisioonansa keskittyäkseen tuottoisampiin lääkevalmisteisiin.
Kaikki muuttui vuonna 1986, kun USA:n kongressi sääti lain, joka estää kansalaisia haastamasta lääkeyrityksiä oikeuteen rokotevahingosta, mikäli rokotteesta seurannut terveydellinen haitta tai kuolema on ”väistämätön”.
Rokotteiden kansainvälinen liikevaihto oli vuonna 2005 8.9 miljardia dollaria ja kasvoi siitä vuoteen 2009 mennessä yli kaksinkertaiseksi 22.2 miljardiin dollariin.
A smarter jab
Big drugs companies see a bright future for vaccines
FOR decades vaccines were a neglected corner of the drugs business, with old technology, little investment and abysmal profit margins. Many firms sold their vaccine divisions to concentrate on more profitable drugs. This troubled public-health experts because vaccines are a highly effective way of dealing with diseases.
Happily, a renaissance is under way. Global vaccine sales vaulted from $8.9 billion in 2005 to $22.2 billion last year. Insurers and governments in the rich world have started to pay higher prices: firms making new vaccines against pneumococcal disease or the human papilloma virus are getting $100 or more per dose. Peter Hotez of the Sabin Vaccine Institute says there is more interest in making vaccines for the poor too, thanks to rich donors.
Recent deals augur well. Johnson & Johnson (J&J), an American drugs giant, has offered $2.4 billion for most of the shares it does not yet control in Crucell, a Dutch vaccine firm. Last year, J&J spent $1.5 billion buying part of Ireland’s Elan, which is developing a vaccine for Alzheimer’s.
Crucell is working on a “universal” influenza vaccine, which might eliminate seasonal flu jabs. At present an annual scramble to develop suitable vaccines starts as the most potent current strains are identified. But the production methods are cumbersome: typically, growing viruses in hundreds of millions of hens’ eggs.
Novartis, a big Swiss drugmaker, has invested in production facilities in America that use cell culture, rather than hens’ eggs, to develop the jabs. It has also teamed up with Synthetic Genomics Vaccines, a young American firm, to develop a variety of “seed” viruses. These could provide a three-month head start in making seasonal flu vaccines.
Other innovations look promising. Joseph Kim of Inovio, an American start-up, says his firm has devised a DNA-based method to produce a universal flu vaccine. This has done well enough in early trials to win a grant from the American government. Researchers are also working on needle-less vaccines and jabs against non-infectious diseases such as certain cancers. On October 13th a study published in Science Translational Medicinerevealed that early-stage trials show a new tuberculosis vaccine may work against drug-resistant strains of that killer disease.
Yet vaccines are an inherently risky business. They are usually given to healthy people who, if they later fall sick, may blame the jab. This creates fertile ground for fearmongers. The absurd rumour that the polio vaccine is a Western plot to sterilise Muslims has stopped many Nigerians from inoculating their children. In Britain a doctor was banned from practising after falsely claiming that the triple vaccine used against measles, mumps and rubella might cause autism. This caused panic.
Lawsuits are another problem. America’s Congress passed a law in 1986 which bars ordinary suits against manufacturers if an injury or death caused by a vaccination was “unavoidable”. This week the Supreme Court was reviewing a case that may overturn that law. If it does, a flood of litigation could bring the vaccine renaissance to a swift end.