Development of safe and effective vaccines is brilliant international success

Brussels, Belgium. 21st December 2020. Exterior view of Pfizer Pharmaceutical company's offices.

The Pfizer-biontech vaccine was developed by an American company working in Germany with Hungarian scientists - Credit: Getty Images

With the amazing development of the Covid vaccines pharmaceutical companies have gone from zero to hero.

Until recently it was fashionable to criticise 'big pharma'.

The pharmaceutical industry has not always behaved well but they are not alone.

At least their aim was always noble; to help humanity by developing treatments for disease and saving lives.

Some years ago, I toured the factory of a large pharmaceutical company. It was fascinating.

The production lines for dressings and injections must have a higher level of hygiene than the most impressive operating theatre.

We were only allowed to look in through the large glass windows. The workers were in full protective sterile suits and everywhere lay petri dishes. If any petri dish grew any bacteria the whole day’s production was destroyed and the area sterilized again.

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As the staff pointed out, if a patient died from an infected dressing or injection not only would that be a tragedy for the patient and their family but the reputation of the company would be shredded.

They also manufactured 20million suppositories a year to treat piles which made me wonder how many people suffer from a pain in the backside.

During the Iran-Iraq war this factory ran production lines 24 hours a day seven days a week supplying dressings to both sides. Is this an ethical way to make money from a war?

Developing a new drug requires research into thousands of molecules which might have a therapeutic effect.

Most of these turn out to be useless or dangerous. Even effective drugs may not always be useful. A drug which helped a common cold in young people but must be given every hour by injection could not be marketed.

It is not only the active drug which requires extensive research.

They were manufacturing a pessary which must dissolve completely in the body at 37C but stay solid in hot countries where there is no fridge when the temperature can reach 35C.

Of course, the pharmaceutical industry is in a highly competitive market.

A new drug to prevent male hair loss would make a larger profit than an effective treatment for a disease which is rampant in the developing world. 

But they are also under commercial pressure to develop new drugs which might save lives.

We must not wave the Union Jack, Tricolour or Stars and Strips when celebrating the amazing success of the vaccines. 

The pharmaceutical industry, like all scientific research is international. Attempts to support the UK are not always straightforward. 

I remember two identical antibiotics which cost the NHS exactly the same.

One was by a French company the other British. Surely, given a choice we should always back Britain. Then I discovered that the British company manufactured their antibiotic in France while the French company made theirs in Britain.  How should a patriotic Brit behave?

The Pfizer-biontech vaccine was developed by an American company working in Germany with Hungarian scientists.

The AstraZeneca vaccine was developed in Oxford by British scientists although the trials were also carried out in South Africa and Brazil. 

The American company, Moderna, who have produced another successful vaccine, was founded by Derrick Rossi, a Canadian with a PhD from the University of Helsinki. 

The French owned company Valneva have started manufacturing a vaccine in Scotland. 

Another vaccine which has shown excellent results is from the American company, Jansssen, whose chief executive, Paul Stoffels, is Belgian meaning that Hercule Poirot is not the only famous Belgian.

Another French company, Sanofi, has not yet succeeded in developing a vaccine but before we quote Waterloo and Agincourt we need to remember that the head of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot and the head of Moderna, Stephane Bancel, are both French while the head of Sanofi, Paul Hudson, is British.

Although there are many things to criticise in big pharma their development of safe and effective vaccines is brilliant international success.