Drug executives worried about rising safety hurdles, demands for larger trials and politicians’ growing influence on drug regulation could do worse than learn from their counterparts in vaccines.
Massive trial sizes and squeaky-clean safety have been part of the game in vaccines for years—since these are products given to millions of healthy individuals. “We’re used to these challenges,” Didier Hoch, President of Sanofi Pasteur MSD (SPMSD) told IN VIVO Blog this week.
And they’re used to dealing with a few of the other challenges drug firms are now facing, too, including demands for sound health economic and epidemiological data to support reimbursement and the need to engage not just with doctors, but a range of other stakeholders, too, including payors, policy-makers, patients and health workers.
And at €330 per person (for three doses), Gardasil knocks down the old theory that vaccines don't command premium prices. (Though it’s still cheap enough, relative to some cancer drugs, for authorities to reimburse, as they have agreed to do in all of the largest European markets, other than the UK.)
Now sure, vaccines have been hot for some years now: bioterrorism and bird flu were just some of the factors that led to a scramble of Big Pharma (and little biotech) into the field; some returning to what they’d earlier cast aside.
They will get hotter still. Scientists are figuring out how to vaccinate against a wider range of conditions--including ones that haven’t even arrived and may never will, like bird flu. As we reported a few weeks ago, Novartis just committed up to $500m for an anti-smoking vaccine from Cytos. SPMSD and others have more novel vaccines, like Zostavax for shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia, in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, FDA and other regulators are becoming increasingly sceptical of drugs that treat the symptoms of disease, and looking for products which get closer to addressing the cause, or progression, of certain illnesses. Preventing them altogether is even better. And cheaper.
Small wonder, then, that Hoch has, over the last couple of years, had a direct reporting line into Sanofi-Aventis’ outgoing big boss, Jean-Francois Dehecq. Vaccines matter (and perhaps even more now, after one-time-potential blockbuster rimonabant’s big stumble).
SPMSD sets one final example that drug firms might take note of: R&D cooperation. Sanofi Pasteur MSD was created in 1994 as a joint venture between Sanofi-Aventis and Merck. Any vaccine in either company’s pipeline passes to SPMSD after Phase II for further development, approval and marketing in Europe.
The JV was set up because vaccines require large up front investments and significant regulatory expertise, including understanding of, and links to, each European government's policy-makers and approval system.
Given the rising costs and falling productivity of R&D in regular drug firms, pooling costs and risks doesn’t seem a bad idea.