When people in the biopharmaceutical world speak of the valley of death, they’re not talking about a geographic hot spot where a lethal disease has infected a large number of people. Rather, the valley of death is where scientists in a research program have spent the last of their grant money, or a young biotech company has burned through its preliminary financing, and, though a program may still be promising, potential funders decide that they don’t want to risk the costs of taking it to the next level, and it dies. Currently, the valley of death, and similar financial constraints, are hampering vaccine development, which health officials are counting on to release us from the scourge of covid-19 and, perhaps even more important, from future pandemics that the novel coronavirus portends.
Judging from the Times’s “Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker,” a lack of research funds wouldn’t seem to be a serious problem. More than a hundred and sixty-five vaccines are in development around the world. Seven, including three in China, are in advanced human trials. The two most talked-about in this country—Moderna’s, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and AstraZeneca’s, at Oxford University—rely on new technologies, based on genetic engineering, being deployed with seemingly unprecedented speed. Similar programs run by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax claim to be not far behind. All speak of a vaccine by 2021. The U.S. government is paying up to ten billion dollars in subsidies to five of these programs, for trials and manufacturing, under a plan called Operation Warp Speed. Three weeks ago, Pfizer was awarded a contract worth nearly two billion dollars, to pay for a hundred million doses, and to support the company’s scaling up to produce six hundred million. On Tuesday, it was announced that Moderna would supply a hundred million doses for a billion and a half dollars.
This would all suggest that governments and Big Pharma are doing all that can be done. And that may well have been the case if the vaccines currently under development were in response to a virus so novel that no one could have anticipated it; or if nothing like it will ever occur again, so that emergency funding on this scale will never be called for again, either. But neither is true. We have known about other fatal coronaviruses, such as sars and mers, for years—and we have also known that they would not be the last that we encountered. Moreover, vaccines are developed in distinct research platforms: some work with genes, others with proteins, or parts of the virus itself. Each requires particular methods of development and manufacturing, and those methods, not to mention the extensive testing regimes that are required—in this country, by the Food and Drug Administration—all make the typical financial pitfalls of drug research worse in the case of vaccines.