Some pharmas acting like “toilet roll profiteers” on COVID-19, says clinician


A leading UK scientist says some drugmakers are acting like “supermarket hoarders” as coronavirus escalates, failing to share data on potential drugs and vaccines for COVID-19 that could help tackle the pandemic.

Prof Ara Darzi – a surgeon and director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London and former Health Minister – makes the claim in an editorial in the Guardian that pharma companies are placing their own interests ahead of the public good.

“The best way to identify candidate drugs is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to crunch huge quantities of data to find the ones that might work,” writes Prof Darzi.

Major AI companies are putting their capacity to work crunching the data needed to find drugs that might be successful, but are “being hampered…because some pharmaceutical companies are failing to share all of the data on potential candidate treatments that they hold.”

“Like toilet roll profiteers, they are keeping it stashed in their digital attics and cellars where others cannot get at it, on the grounds that it is commercially confidential,” he continues, pointing out that open data-sharing was the reason scientists were able to map the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus so quickly.

“We now urgently need all pharmaceutical companies to set aside their individual commercial ambitions and join a similar collective effort to identify, test, develop and manufacture treatments to curb the disease,” says Darzi.

The industry could come together and collaborate on the search for new drugs, as they have already done in areas such as the hunt for new antibiotics for drug-resistant infections.

The MELLODY (Machine Learning Ledger Orchestration for Drug Discovery) project announced last year for instance is using AI on a secure blockchain to share data between companies without exposing their internal know-how and compromising their intellectual property.

AI is already being deployed in a number of projects around the world to hunt for COVID-19 therapies, says Darzi, including a public private partnership set up by Californian AI company to connect scientists with supercomputers that will help them find solutions to the pandemic.

However, “without full access to comprehensive data, the scientists will be fighting with one hand tied behind their backs,” writes Darzi.

He says all drugmakers “must unlock their chemical libraries so candidate drugs can be identified, and trials to test the most promising treatments begin as soon as humanly possible.”

It’s clear pharma companies have been donating drugs, lab space and medical expertise and manpower to the effort to fight coronavirus, as well as saying they won’t enforce patent protection on some drugs.

Rights related to drug discovery and development are a thornier issue of course. pharmaphorum has asked the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and BioIndustry Association (BIA) for comment on the editorial, and will update this article if that comes in.