2020 has been one of the most devastating years in world history: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to massive lockdowns, overwhelmed hospitals, nearly 69 million people infected across the globe, and more than 1.5 million dead.
But it’s equally remarkable for another reason: In less than one year, we are on the verge of bringing two vaccines to market that may practically eradicate the coronavirus, while public health officials have discovered a range of effective treatments for people who have already been infected. Until now, no successful vaccine had ever been developed, tested, and approved in less than five years — and most take much longer.
While we’re not quite ready to celebrate, there’s an important lesson to be learned here. And if the biotech industry does not seize it, we will be missing out on an extraordinary opportunity — not just for the industry, but for humankind.
The COVID-19 vaccine resulted from a massive, unprecedented level of collaboration between government, academia, and the world’s leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies. This public-private partnership has included thousands of scientists working simultaneously in labs across countries, tens of thousands of volunteers, and myriad agencies cooperating with each other — all with the singular goal of ending COVID-19.
And now that it appears we’re on the threshold of beating back the virus, we need to seize upon this momentum and carry it forward. This is a reckoning — a moment for us to think big, act boldly, and revolutionize the way the biotech/pharma industry does business.
Imagine if we brought this same white-hot urgency to address heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and other diseases that have vexed us for centuries. Instead of the slow, steady status quo, imagine if we acted with similar urgency to bring cures to the millions of people affected by these diseases.
Take Alzheimer’s disease. More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s today, with this number projected to nearly triple to 14 million people over the next 40 years. Today, the cost of treating it is projected to be well over $150 billion annually.
But what if finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease was our next moonshot — an Operation Warp Speed 2.0? What if the federal government dedicated $20 billion and biotech companies pooled their resources and knowledge to focus on America’s number one killer? Not to stave it off. Not to slow it down. To cure it. Now. That’s to say nothing of the profits from the medicine itself, which would bring in hundreds of billions of dollars for every entity that invested in it to research cures for the next major disease.
Unfortunately, our biomedical industry is built around the wrong incentives. The big money is not focused on finding cures for medical issues like heart disease or neurodegenerative disease. Instead, our industry rewards companies that corner the market and invent specialty drugs for rare diseases. They are predictable diseases that are lucratively rewarded because they are rare “to incentivize treatment,” making them a go-to for investors.
For example, there are almost as many active trials involving a treatment for the rare Gaucher’s Disease, which afflicts roughly 8,205 Americans each year (and perhaps more important has thankfully had successful treatments on the market since 1994) as there are studies exploring the p53 gene, the so-called Holy Grail of cancer. The p53 gene stops cells with mutated or damaged DNA from dividing, preventing the development of tumors — when cancers damage p53, they disable one of our most powerful defenses against cancer.
That’s not in any way to diminish the seriousness of Gaucher’s Disease, but rather to show that our priorities are simply out of whack for one unsurprising reason: money. The outrageously high cost of orphan drugs — medications created for rare diseases — is a main reason the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most poorly regarded industries in America.
For too long, the biomedical-industrial complex has put profits ahead of people. We can change this. We can use the same sort of all-hands-on-deck effort that we used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. At Valo Health, we’re using AI, machine learning, and massive computational power to work on these big health issues — and we would welcome the level of collaboration and public-private partnership that we’ve seen in the development of the COVID vaccines. It’s time to go back to the reason we all went into this business in the first place. It’s time to focus on the big problems.
With the COVID-19 vaccine, we’ve done something never before accomplished in the history of medicine: Working together, disparate groups have created what appears will be at least two successful vaccines in less than a year. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels or call it a day. Instead, let’s take that same energy and engineer more miracles in health.
David Berry is the founder and CEO of Valo Health.