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Vaccines more likely to get through clinical trials than other types of drugs, MIT study finds

Three potential coronavirus vaccines are kept in a tray at Novavax labs in Rockville, Maryland.
Three potential coronavirus vaccines are kept in a tray at Novavax labs in Rockville, Maryland.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than other types of drugs, but vaccine development for some of the world’s most dangerous diseases has lagged in recent decades, which may present challenges for the pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new MIT study.

In a statement posted Wednesday to its website, MIT said the study, titled "Estimating Probabilities of Success of Vaccine and Other Anti-Infective Therapeutic Development Programs,” was released May 18 as part of the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series and has been accepted for publication in the Harvard Data Science Review.

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The authors included economist Andrew Lo, a professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of MIT’s Laboratory of Financial Engineering; Kien Wei Siah, a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Chi Heem Wong, a PhD candidate in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Laboratory for Financial Engineering, MIT said.

From January 2000 to January 2020, the statement said, private-sector vaccine-development efforts succeeded in bringing a drug to market 39.6 percent of the time, while programs to develop medicines that lessen the severity of illness, including antibiotics, succeeded 16.3 percent of the time.

There are currently over 100 active projects around the world aimed at developing a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the statement.

But researchers found that vaccine development for some of the world’s most dangerous diseases has lagged in recent decades, the statement said. Researchers found that a “relative handful” of nearly 10,000 drug-development projects reviewed in the study addressed “high-profile, highly problematic contagions” of the last two decades.

"If you look at the most significant diseases outside of Covid-19, like MERS, SARS, Ebola, and Zika, among those diseases, there’s been a total of only 45 nonvaccine programs initiated over the last two decades for them,” Lo said in the statement. “And there’s been only one vaccine approved, for Ebola, in December 2019. That’s worrisome, because we know for a fact that these diseases are real threats, and yet there’s been relatively little attention paid to them.”

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Lo said only four of the leading 20 pharmaceutical companies are heavily invested in vaccine development, a steep drop over the past 20 years, according to the statement.

“This tells me that the economics of vaccines must be really challenging, if fewer and fewer big pharma companies are willing to commit resources to this business,” Lo said in the statement. “If there’s a silver lining to this terrible pandemic, it’s that things are going to change in the aftermath of Covid-19.”

Lo said vaccines used to be more profitable for companies.

“But over the course of the last 15-20 years, I think governments have started cutting budgets and ignoring issues that aren’t clear and present dangers, perhaps expecting private insurers to pick up the slack,” Lo said in the statement. "Unless there’s an immediate threat to public health, it’s really hard to get people to focus on it. It’s like insurance … You don’t think you’re going to need it, until you do. And then it’s usually too late.”

Lo added that he and his team wanted to raise public awareness about the state of vaccine development.

"Now that we’ve experienced the deadly consequences of a pandemic, the hope is that governments around the world — and it really has to be governments — will pay more attention,” Lo said in the statement. "As the saying goes, ‘crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ so we need to take advantage of this opportunity to come up with a more enduring solution, not just for this pandemic, but for all future pandemics, because inevitably another pandemic will emerge, whether its SARS, MERS, or some other pathogen we’ve never encountered. Thanks to a number of recent biomedical breakthroughs, we now have many more ways of creating anti-infectives than ever before — we just need the political will to do so.”

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Among the many companies chasing a COVID-19 vaccine is the Cambridge biotech Moderna.

The Globe reported last week that a closely watched experimental vaccine for COVID-19 developed by Moderna produced antibodies in eight healthy volunteers similar to those found in people who recovered from the disease, suggesting that the vaccine “has the potential to prevent” infection, according to a company executive.

The encouraging results from the first phase of a clinical trial buoyed investors, boosting Moderna’s stock by nearly 20 percent and helping to spark a major rally on Wall Street, with the Dow Jones industrial average closing up just shy of 4 percent.

More than 100 experimental vaccines are in the works as drug firms, academic laboratories, and governments around the globe scramble to develop a way to prevent COVID-19. The potential financial reward for the first company that markets a successful vaccine could be worth billions of dollars.

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John Saltzman of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.