The CBC has an article claiming that:
"Formulas for new, inexpensive influenza drugs that could expand the world's tiny arsenal of weapons against pandemic flu are gathering dust because the pharmaceutical industry isn't interested in developing them, scientists say.
They believe governments should fund the testing and development of the drugs, side-stepping big pharma and bringing them to market as cheap generic medications.
And they point to the story of Relenza - one of only four flu drugs currently sold - as evidence public-sector involvement will be needed if crucial new flu drugs are ever going to hit pharmacy shelves. . ."
Which scientists say these things? Well, one of them is Mark von Itzstein, of Griffith University in Australia, who is quoted as saying that he has "three compounds that are ready to be tested in animals and could be available on a commercial basis in three to five years for about $10 a treatment course". You have to get to the end of the article to get to some of the problems with that statement, and some of them never make it to the surface at all.
For one thing, having three compounds that are ready to be tested in animals is not as big a number as it might sound. I've been on projects where many more compounds than that - about ten times more, in some cases - went into animal testing, and nothing still came out the other end. It's good to have compounds that you believe in, but Prof. von Itzstein (who helped discover the drug now sold as Relenza) surely knows, you usually need a lot more shots on goal than that.
Another little detail is that going from this unspecified "animal testing" (efficacy model? two-week toxicity?) to "available on a commercial basis" in under five years is rather unlikely. That's a very, very short time for drug development, and I don't see how all the regulatory requirements could be met so quickly. And having a cost estimate in hand makes it seem as if there's already a bulk synthesis of the compounds, but why would you do that before you've even come close to going into animals?
This all has to do with a Worthwhile Candian Initiative called ICAV, which aims to get more antiviral drugs on the market. I certainly can support that idea, but I think that the people involved will soon find out one reason why there aren't more of them already: antiviral drug development is very hard. There are a lot of disparaging references in that CBC article about the profit-driven drug companies ignoring all these worthy drugs, but then there's this:
"ICAV is trying to get buy-in from governments around the world, starting with Canada. It has asked the federal government for $70 million over seven years to promote development of antiviral drugs for a number of diseases, including influenza, HIV and hepatitis C."
You know, I could have sworn that those indications could all support profitable drugs - if of course, they, like, work and everything. One of the problems with neuraminidase inhibitors like Relenza is that they have to be administered rather soon in the disease's progression, or they're basically useless. That's one reason that they haven't caught on, together with their often less-than-compelling efficacy. But getting antivirals with compelling efficacy is, as mentioned, hard. Those of us over in the profit-driven drug industry can only agree with Prof. von Itzstein wholeheartedly when he's quoted as saying "We need new antivirals." The only thing I would add is just a "good" in the middle of that sentence.