Despite dire warnings, a stockpile of ready compounds to fight viral pandemics was sorely lacking. Can drugmakers finally do the right thing?
Elie Dolgin, Nature
The year 2003 was an ominous one for emerging infectious diseases. A pair of deadly influenza strains had leapt from birds to humans in Hong Kong and the Netherlands. And a new coronavirus was spreading around the world causing a mysterious illness that became known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Many experts feared they were watching the start of a global pandemic.
Fortunately, the worst-case scenario never materialized. But it was a close-enough call for Robert Webster, a leading authority on avian influenza, to start urging scientists and policymakers to prepare for the next outbreak. One of his top recommendations: develop and stockpile drugs that target a wide range of viral pathogens1.
Drug researchers did not heed his call. After the SARS threat subsided, interest evaporated — and the world paid the price. “The scientific community really should have developed universal antivirals against SARS,” says Webster, now an emeritus member of St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. “Then we would have had something in the stockpile for the emergence of COVID,” which is a caused by SARS-CoV-2, a close relative of the virus responsible for SARS.
Another warning shot came in 2012, when Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — caused by another relative of SARS-CoV-2 — started spreading through a handful of countries. Still, the drug shelves remained largely bare — a fact that Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, regards as “regrettable”.
“Shame on us,” he says of the pharmaceutical industry. “We can be better prepared.”
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