Tackling Emerging Viruses: CLSA Q&A with PaxVax CEO Nima Farzan
July 14, 2016 | View on Medium
In recent years, a new round of terrifying viruses has captured the public’s imagination. Ebola, H1N1, SARS, Zika and other pathogens strike rapidly, mutate without warning and pose a major threat to public health. On July 28, as part of our ongoing series, An Afternoon with Thought Leaders, California Life Sciences Association (CLSA) will host a panel discussion in La Jolla, CA on Pandemic Preparedness: The Public-Private Research and Response Infrastructure, to examine how our nation’s pandemic preparedness and response infrastructure functions, and how it can be improved, including the role of industry.
Q: Why did you get into vaccines?
I started at Novartis on the pharmaceutical side and then had an
opportunity to work in the vaccines division, which was smaller and more entrepreneurial.
Vaccine work is really fascinating. There’s more complexity to it: it’s a biologic; you’re manufacturing on massive scales; the commercial model is different in every country, even every state. So combine that with the social impact and once you get in it’s hard to leave.
Q: Tell us about PaxVax
We originally focused on H5N1 (pandemic flu) but have expanded to specialty vaccines. These aren’t pediatric or seasonal influenza vaccines but more for travel, military biodefense, diseases in the developing world, occupational health and other areas. There aren’t many companies that are looking at these smaller, niche segments.
In 2014, we acquired an approved typhoid vaccine, Vivotif, and a manufacturing facility from Johnson & Johnson. This year the first vaccine we developed, Vaxchora for cholera, was approved by FDA.
Q: In recent years we’ve been surprised by SARS and Zika. How do we even know what’s next? How do we prepare?
Nobody predicted Zika because it has been around for decades and didn’t cause the severe side effects that we see today. But mutation happens and that’s the current thinking with Zika. Two additional viruses that should concern us are chikungunya, which is also spread by mosquitoes, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
The public health approach has been to single out pathogens that cause the most concern, pour a ton of money into developing vaccines and then stockpile them. A good example is pandemic bird flu. In that model, we’re prepared for a small number of viruses but when a new thing comes up, like Zika, we have to start from scratch.
Rather than spend hundreds of millions of dollars on two or three high-risk viruses, let’s spend 10 or 15 million on dozens of them. None of these vaccines will be ready for market, but they will be much closer, say phase II. If there is an outbreak, we could go straight into phase III.
Q: How could we implement this approach?
For a vaccine company, you’d get your research and development reimbursed but then you’re only in phase II and it’s parked. You’re going to have to find companies who are willing to do that.
We have to reallocate available budgets, which are mostly governmental. There’s an intrinsic inertia when it comes to rethinking budgets and how they’re allocated.
There are also active discussions happening around the creation of a vaccine development fund using new resources, which would be helpful.
Q: How can we improve public policy to be better prepared?
Two years ago, if we had wanted to develop a Zika vaccine, no investor would have put money into that, there was no market, and there was no funding mechanism until an emergency was declared.
Where would you go to find money to develop a vaccine that anticipates the next emergency?
The NIH is an option, but they usually have a specific interest and put out an RFP. You can go to BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) but they have been primarily investing in pandemic flu.
The military research institutes take a broader perspective. Their mission is to protect the warfighter, but they also investigate disease outbreaks and threats to public health, so there is significant overlap with pandemic preparedness and response.
We need to take those kinds of programs and expand them across a larger spectrum of pathogens.
In the long run, the government must make a firm commitment to funding a variety of vaccine programs. The only way to guard against these pathogens is to anticipate them.
About California Life Sciences Association (CLSA)
California Life Sciences Association (CLSA) is the leading voice driving innovation for California’s life sciences sector. We work closely with industry, government, academia and other stakeholders to shape public policy, drive business solutions and grow California’s life sciences innovation ecosystem. CLSA serves over 750 biotechnology, pharmaceutical, medical device, and diagnostics companies, research universities and institutes, investors and service providers. CLSA was founded in 2015 when the Bay Area Bioscience Association (BayBio) and the California Healthcare Institute (CHI) merged to create the state’s most influential life sciences advocacy and business leadership organization. Visit CLSA at www.califesciences.org, and follow us on Twitter @CALifeSciences,Facebook, Instagram,LinkedIn and YouTube.
Produced by Will Zasadny, Associate Director, Communications at California Life Sciences Association. Question? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.