The new coronavirus pandemic has affected more than 800,000 people around the world as of Tuesday. Originated in Wuhan, China, the deadly virus has swept the globe and killed over 40,000.
Experts warn that a new infectious disease without a treatment or vaccine, such as COVID-19, could claim scores of millions of people until a treatment arrives.
To contain the pandemic, many pharmaceutical companies are rushing to develop a treatment or a vaccine against COVID-19. However, it is still uncertain when the pandemic will end because it is almost impossible to predict when treatment and a vaccine will be available.
The problem is that many drugmakers tend to stop working on drug or vaccine candidates once a pandemic ends. Prices of vaccines and treatments for developing countries, in particular, are likely to be set low. At the same time, a drug firm has to spend over a decade and millions of dollars to develop a single medicine. Such circumstances make it difficult for businesses to invest in affordable drugs in developing countries.
Thus, researchers in the infectious diseases and neglected diseases sector need R&D funds so that they can continue their work. To solve this problem, the Research Investment for Global Health Technology (RIGHT) Fund, a non-profit public-private partnership group, supports R&D funds.
Established in Korea in July 2018, RIGHT Fund consists of funds jointly invested by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, LG Chem, SK Bioscience, GC Pharma, Chong Kun Dang, Genexine, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The organization selects R&D projects for vaccines, treatments and diagnostic technologies for infectious diseases and supports R&D expenses.
Korea Biomedical Review has met with infectious disease specialist Paul Herrling, chairman of the Selection Committee at the RIGHT Fund, to learn what roles public health researchers and pharmaceutical companies should play to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Herrling previously served as vice president of the board of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, and professor for Drug Discovery Science at the Philosophisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and global head of research at Novartis.
|Paul Herrling, chairman of the Selection Committee at the RIGHT Fund|
Question: What do we need to boost R&D activities in the essential yet less profitable areas such as COVID-19?
Answer: It’s the sharing of social responsibility by parceling the R&D support by various organizations, such as the private sector and the government. Governments, international organizations, private companies, and civil societies all over the world collaborate and share each other’s R&D and technological innovation so that we should activate more to share responsibilities and find better solutions. R&D in this field is now more active through public-private cooperation than before. The RIGHT Fund is one of the public-private partnerships for this purpose. Through the public-private partnership between the Health-Welfare Ministry, Korean life science companies and Gates Foundation, RIGHT Fund is selecting and funding R&D projects for the development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, which can address public health concerns and needs in developing countries. Public-private cooperation such as RIGHT Fund needs to expand further in the future.
Q: What are the important issues in global health public-private partnerships, such as RIGHT Fund, in battling infectious disease?
A: It is to make full use of each organization’s strength. Leveraging strengths helps to achieve the most efficient results with limited resources. Therefore, it is critical to understand and connect what is regarded as top priorities in resolving healthcare challenges in developing countries through public-private partnerships; how we can find possible solutions; what are major ongoing research projects now; how likely it is for the current projects to succeed; and what physical, intellectual and technological resources are required for prompt commercialization of the projects. The Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases also communicated with different countries, the World Health Organization and Gates Foundation, identified what efforts are made for addressing healthcare challenges facing humankind and tried to achieve results through proper support. This goes the same for the RIGHT Fund. The Fund doesn't stop at identifying excellent healthcare research projects in Korea and providing financial support to them. RIGHT Fund aims to draw out each entity’s strengths by facilitating R&D cooperation and product development partnerships (PDP) with overseas organizations and to utilize those strengths to produce visible results.
Q: We heard you had interactions with Korean companies and research organs even before taking the role at the RIGHT Fund. As a global leader in the pharma industry, what has been your observation toward Korea’s pharmaceutical R&D activities? What would be the strengths of Korean pharma R&D that can be leveraged for global health issues such as infectious diseases?
A: Korea’s pharmaceutical R&D efforts had a late start, compared with more advanced countries, but it has developed faster than any other country. Furthermore, I understand that Korea’s investment in pharmaceutical R&D has grown significantly in the last decade, as both the public and private sectors recognized the importance of investment in biotechnology R&D. In this course, Korea achieved remarkable outcomes on the development of new formulation and manufacturing in therapeutics and vaccines and gained a competitive edge in the global market. Korea also boasts its exceptional diagnostics, recently proven during the COVID-19 outbreak. Korea’s technological strength can play a crucial role in removing public health challenges in developing countries, such as limited production capacity, high costs, weak distribution, and shortage of healthcare professionals.
Q: You have been serving in selection committees and advisory boards of many organizations. What’s your focus when evaluating RIGHT Fund proposals in particular?
A: The RIGHT Fund seeks R&D projects leveraging the strength of Korea to have a rapid and substantial impact on the lives in low-income countries. RIGHT Fund has five investment principles in the process of selecting the investment R&D project; public health needs of low-income countries; positive impact on the lives of patients; leverage strengths of Korean life sciences; contribution to resolving global imbalances towards the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases; and maintaining transparency in the RIGHT Fund’s proposal selection process.
Q: What are the profiles of selected projects in the first investment round of the RIGHT Fund and critical reasons for the selection?
A: The RIGHT Fund’s initial investment projects selected through the request for proposal (RFP) in 2019 consist of one therapeutics, two vaccines, and two diagnostics projects. The R&D of a new hexavalent vaccine (DTwP-HepB-Hib-IPV), one of the vaccine projects, can increase the immunization coverage by essential vaccines in the world’s most impoverished populations. Another vaccine project is the R&D of a novel cholera conjugate vaccine for children under five years of age in developing countries. Current oral cholera vaccines are highly effective but have diminished efficacy in children under 5.
The project for therapeutics is the development of a low-cost continuous-flow manufacturing process for a new ozonide-based antimalarial. The development of this process will significantly reduce the manufacturing cost for a new ozonide-based antimalarial, and also resolve manufacturing safety concerns that currently restrict the large-scale batch process.
One project for diagnostics is the development of a second-generation test for identifying Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency in malaria. To increase the impact, this project will be developed an easier-to-use sample collector and formulated new strip reagents to increase the stability of the test kit to more than 18 months. The final project is the development of a multidrug-resistant tuberculosis diagnostic kit using point-of-care molecular diagnosis. The test will have the capacity to detect Mycobacterium tuberculosis resistant to rifampicin, fluoroquinolones, isoniazid, and aminoglycosides, and be ported on a newly developed platform able to analyze two samples simultaneously and provide results within 30 minutes.
Q: As we saw in the recent COVID-19 outbreaks, we need international cooperation to prevent infectious disease and keep it from spreading. What is Korea’s strength in public health efforts in this regard? Do you have any advice you would like to give, especially to Korean researchers?
A: Korea has the world’s best information and communication technologies (ICT). And this makes me think that Korea could combine ICT and healthcare R&D and contribute to developing applicable and effective tools for the prevention and surveillance of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 in remoted areas. Surprisingly in many African countries, mobile phone coverage is way higher than vaccine coverage. I know that the RIGHT Fund also considered such potential and included the disease surveillance platform in the RFP. I look forward to reviewing such ICT- combined health technologies soon. I also wish more Korean researchers and companies to participate in the RIGHT Fund's RFP in the future.
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