Partnerships for Ebola: Pharma industry’s $351M push to stop the outbreak

Study participant receives Ebola vaccine. The Innovative Medicines Initiative is accepting proposals until Dec. 1 for an Ebola initiative that aims to support international efforts to curb the spread of the virus by deploying additional stakeholders and funding into relevant research areas. Photo by: NIAID / CC BY

Billed as the world’s biggest public-private partnership in the life sciences, a multibillion-euro fund called the Innovative Medicines Initiative jumped into the anti-Ebola fray with a call for proposals worth 280 million euros ($351 million) that closed Dec. 1.

“Stopping the spread of Ebola, now and for future generations, is a key priority for the pharmaceutical industry,” said Richard Bergstrom, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, IMI’s main private sector partner.

According to Bergstrom, the current outbreak exposed “unprecedented challenges” for the entire health care system, and addressing these will require “close collaboration and engagement from multiple stakeholders.”

Designed primarily to address European health problems and improve the continent’s competitiveness in the pharmaceutical business, IMI was launched in 2008 with an initial five-year budget of 200 million euros — half coming from the European Union and the rest from EFPIA and its member companies.

Phase two covers 2014-2024 and has a budget of 3.3 billion euros. Cash goes to support less well-endowed but essential partners such as universities, small biotech companies, patient groups and regulators. The main goal is to “accelerate the development of new medicines by increasing collaboration,” said Lucía Caudet, spokeswoman for the European Commission.

Encompassing 46 projects, phase one addressed a range of what some consider as primarily rich-country problems like neurological conditions — Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, depression, chronic pain and autism — as well as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, inflammation and infection, and obesity.

Success stories included faster development of diabetes drugs through the first ever human pancreatic beta cell line, new models to better predict drug toxicity, a new definition of severe asthma that promises to unlock new therapies, the world’s largest database of schizophrenia studies to develop more targeted treatments, and a better understanding of the mechanisms of chronic pain.

Perhaps setting the stage for the Ebola initiative, IMI’s phase one also included a project that focused on tuberculosis. As one leading player in the affordable drugs debate put it, “TB is a typical disease that is concentrated among the poor.” A professor of philosophy at both Yale University in the United States and the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, Thomas Pogge added that “the TB market has been unproductive for 43 years.”

IMI operates in what’s called the precompetitive phase of drug research and development — the early stages before anyone begins to think about applying for patents. Companies, research institutes and other potential partners are invited to submit projects during periodic calls for proposals, such as the one just launched for Ebola.

“Projects then typically bring together both large industry and other partners, who jointly work on the problems addressed by the call topic,” Caudet said.

As the EU spokeswoman put it, the Ebola initiative aims to support international efforts to curb the spread of the virus by deploying additional stakeholders and funding into relevant research areas.

“Due to the urgency,” Caudet said, “a single-stage fast track process will be used for the evaluation. In the fast-track process, the time frames for the submission of proposals are shortened.”

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Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

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    Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.

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