WASHINGTON — MERS. SARS. Zika.
Like coronavirus, all were fast-spreading viruses that commanded world attention and round-the-clock efforts to develop treatments and vaccines.
But the threats petered out before the research was finished, and new vaccines and drugs never came to market.
“Every time there’s a new outbreak, we get started on treatment and vaccines but don’t cross the finish line,” said Julie Gerberding, executive vice president and chief patent officer of New Jersey-based Merck & Co.
This time around, though, new technologies, scientific capabilities and federal agencies such as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority will give a boost to efforts to develop a response to coronavirus, she said.
“We have enabling features that allow us to imagine what we might be able to do and then to take the steps necessary,” she said.
Gerberding, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joined other drug company executives Wednesday to discuss how their industry was responding to the coronavirus.
“We’re keenly aware of what’s at stake here,” said Stephen Ubl, president and chief executive of the industry’s trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which held the press conference across the street from the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was working on legislation to spend billions to respond to the coronavirus.
Some of those billions will help cover the costs of research and testing as drug companies seek both effective treatments against the virus and a vaccine to protect against new cases. Company executives said they were testing existing drugs to see if they would be effective against the coronavirus, while developing others.
“If a virus is not known, you have to start from scratch,” said Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, based in New Brunswick.
Drug company executives said they had no timetable for when they could bring a vaccine and effective treatments to market. They need to make sure the treatments work and ensure the safety of the vaccines and drugs they develop.
“We’re firmly committed to pursing this as fast as we can,” said Daniel O’Day, chairman and chief executive of Gilead Sciences.
Previous efforts to develop treatments for other viruses, most notably Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Zika, fell by the wayside as the threats dissipated.
“It became sort of a non-issue,” Gerberding said. “That’s happened more than once. It’s very difficult to do clinical trials with a disease that doesn’t exist.”
But the company executives said they believed they should finish the job this time around, no matter how long it takes.
“It’s probably time to take something to the finish line,” said John Shiver, senior vice president of global research and development at Sanofi Pasteur.
It also restored funding to help poor people in New Jersey and elsewhere pay their winter home heating bills, a program Trump unsuccessfully tried to eliminate in his budget and then took money from in order to fund efforts to address the coronavirus.
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