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Difference made

It is thanks to the considerable contribution of pharma that the H1N1 global pandemic has been countered effectively to date

Dr Richard Barker, director general of the ABPIIf ever there was one, this is a moment for our industry to hold its head high. This country and the world would be essentially empty-handed in the face of the H1N1 global pandemic without our creativity, skill and dedication, as well as the investments we make.

Of course I'm thinking about those who discover and develop anti-virals and the vaccine manufacturers that are working flat-out to produce enough doses for widespread autumn vaccination programmes. I'm also not forgetting all the producers of antibiotics, products to treat pneumonia, sepsis and other potential consequences of serious flu.

That the 'swine flu' outbreak has caused mainly mild cases is something to be very grateful for, however, it does not detract from the huge contribution our industry is making to keep cases as mild as possible for as long as possible and treat those who are taken seriously ill.

Attendees at the ABPI Annual Conference this year will remember that Alan Johnson changed his plans on a peak 'pandemic day' to come and thank the industry for all it was doing. The ABPI is working hard also to align messages with the department of health (DH) as it has become clear that, at times of crisis and potential panic, the media look hard for inconsistencies and disagreements. I saw this first-hand when leading the industry team on a pandemic 'war game'. It seems that unless the different stakeholders hang together, the media hang them separately!
There is one key area, however, in which discussions still have to reach a conclusion and that is in essential medicines supply in the event of a major disruption. We all know that the supply chain carries very limited stock – a few weeks at best – and that, despite being a major exporter of medicines, the UK is still highly dependent on imports for major essential medicines. We will meet with DH soon to pursue this point.

Counter measures
Some of the greatest threats we face today come from organisms that cross between species and then between nations. As a result, the UK – as one of the busiest international travel and tourism hubs – is more affected than most other countries its size are. It is therefore good to see that this country is also in the lead with companies and manufacturing sites contributing strongly to counter measures.

The world has long been dependent on slow and sometimes uncertain egg-based vaccines production, however, more recently companies have focused on designing faster, more scalable manufacturing techniques such as cell culture-based manufacturing. Both Baxter and Novartis Vaccines announced on June 12 that their cell culture-based technology has yielded H1N1 antigen – just one day after the phase 6 pandemic was declared and about 16 days after the initial distribution of H1N1 seed samples to manufacturers. 

Australian and Chinese companies have already begun clinical trials with their pandemic H1N1 vaccines. MedImmune (AstraZeneca), GSK Bio, Novartis and Sanofi Pasteur are due to begin clinical trials in the third quarter of 2009  (for more information see Pandemic Preparedness).

Companies have also developed a new generation of adjuvants to help extend the supply of antigen. One of the first H5N1 pandemic influenza vaccines developed utilised 90 micrograms of antigen per dose. By applying new adjuvant technology, this has been brought down to 3.8 micrograms per dose. So we have seen scientific ingenuity combined with urgency, across the global industry.

We all hope that, when crises like this occur, nations will co-operate, borders will remain open and the most urgent health needs will be met from the whole global community. But we also need to be sure that the UK's life sciences industry retains pandemic-relevant researchers, expertise, facilities and supplies as major strategic national assets. We'll be making these points to the Office of Life Sciences as it resumes its work on the Blueprint published in July.

Innovation is the lifeblood of the pharmaceutical industry. Science-centred, research-based companies succeed by making huge and risky investments to create new, innovative treatments for unmet medical needs and to solve urgent public health problems. 

All of us should take the opportunity to reinforce the crucial role of the research-based industry in countering most of the world's major health threats. Yes, companies invest in research, development and manufacturing capacity to earn returns for their shareholders, and yes, at times like these quite good returns will be earned. But without the scientific insights to design effective anti-virals and vaccines and the readiness to make huge investments over many years, humanity would now be naked and unprepared.

The Author
Dr Richard Barker is director general of The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

17th September 2009

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