Remdesivir originally started out as a reject, an also-ran in a search for anti-viral drugs. The drug’s path to relevance did not begin until Robert Jordan, a Gilead scientist at the time, looked at it as part of a side project.
Seven years ago, Jordan convinced the company to let him assemble a library of 1,000 castoff molecules in a search for medicines to treat emerging viruses. While many viral illnesses threaten human health, they do not attract commercial interest because they lack the potential for huge drug sales.
“I kept asking them, ‘Is this OK?’” said Jordan, who is now a vice president at a pharmaceutical start-up. “These don’t represent a commercial opportunity but a public health opportunity. Gilead gave me their blessing to do this on the side.”
On Friday, a preliminary study sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which appeared on The New England Journal of Medicine’s website, finally confirmed the government’s assertions: Remdesivir shortened the recovery time of hospitalized COVID-19 patients from 15 days to 11 days.
Remdesivir’s origin as a rejected drug before being saved by federal investment has led some to call for the federal government to take a more aggressive approach to it.
“Without direct public investment and tax subsidies, this drug would apparently have remained in the scrap heap of unsuccessful drugs,” Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, said earlier this month. Doggett and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro have asked Secretary Alex Azar of the Department of Health and Human Services for a detailed financial accounting of federal support for remdesivir’s discovery and development.
On Monday, HIV-prevention advocacy group PrEP4All Collaboration, working with the NYU School of Law, released an analysis that said that the government likely has a legal right to claim that it co-invented remdesivir, as it helped cull the drug from hundreds of other compounds.
The group contends that, because of their contributions, government scientists should have been listed as co-inventors on remdesivir patents, and that the Trump administration should be leveraging the government’s involvement to ensure that the U.S. and other countries can get the drug at a low cost. (Related: BREAKING: Confirmation that President Trump is NOT controlled by Big Pharma and is completely opposed to coercive vaccine mandates.)
“Agencies can’t just punt it over the fence to a pharmaceutical company and walk away,” said PrEP4All co-founder James Krellenstein. “For the federal government to just walk away from that responsibility is a dereliction of the public trust.”
Knowledge Ecology International and Public Citizen, two other nonprofit watchdog groups, have also documented the large taxpayer-funded contributions towards remdesivir. Public Citizen estimated that a minimum of $70 million was publicly invested in the drug.
“Gilead did not make this drug alone. The public helped make it, and the public has a stake,” stated Peter Maybarduk, director of the access to medicines program at Public Citizen.
For its part, Gilead has acknowledged the large role that government agencies have played in remdesivir’s development. However, the company maintains that the original compound was discovered by Gilead researchers years earlier and that the government has no potential patent rights to the drug.
“Gilead researchers invented remdesivir more than a decade ago, identified its broad-spectrum antiviral activity, optimized the formulation of the product and scaled up the manufacturing process,” said company spokesman Ryan McKeel. “Although government funding was used to further characterize remdesivir’s profile after its initial discovery, this did not result in the creation of the underlying intellectual property invented by Gilead.”
Gilead also stated that it will spend more than $1 billion on the development and manufacture of remdesivir as it rapidly increases the production and distribution of the drug around the world.
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