Dr Peter Moore: Ethical and business side to research for Covid-19 vaccine

Governments and companies must have an ethical as well as a business side as we continue worldwide r

Governments and companies must have an ethical as well as a business side as we continue worldwide research for both treatment and a vaccine for Covid-19 - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was probably George Bernard Shaw who said 'England and America are two countries separated by the same language'. And some Americans also have a different approach to the free market.

The anti-viral drug Remdesivir is not a magic cure for coronavirus.

It might make a small difference in severe cases but the US has brought up the entire world supply. The American Secretary for Health even boasted of President Trump's 'amazing deal'.

President Trump also allegedly offered huge sums to a German company to ensure a potential vaccine would only be available to Americans but the Germans refused.

This approach is not new. The Americans have a track record.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming noticed that some bacteria did not grow around a penicillin mould which had accidently grown on his laboratory culture plate.

He could not isolate the chemical responsible and his work was ignored for ten years.

Most Read

In 1939, a scientist working in Oxford, Ernest Chain, found this paper and discussed it with his boss, Howard Florey.

They decided to set up a team to isolate the chemical which was killing the bacteria.

The team also involved an expert in fungi, Norman Heatley.

Ernest Chain was a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany in 1933. While working on his life-saving work he knew that many of his friends and relatives were being murdered.

Having successfully isolated penicillin, it was used on patients very successfully but wartime restrictions meant that they could not produce enough.

It was decided to involve America which was not yet at war.

In 1941, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley travelled to America with their precious sample of the mould. To prevent it being lost or stolen they smeared the mould onto their coats.

Working with the Americans, they developed techniques for mass production of penicillin so that by 1943 they had enough penicillin to treat the whole of the allied armed forces.

When they returned to Britain the Times published an article about a patient with meningitis whose life was saved by this new 'miracle drug'.

It did not mention Fleming, Florey or Chain so Fleming's boss wrote to the paper giving Fleming the credit. Professor Florey stopped any of his team speaking to the press and so the myth was created that Fleming alone discovered penicillin. Fleming was always happy to take the credit.

Ernest Chain wanted to patent the drug but Howard Florey did not agree. It was, in his view, unethical to patent such a life-saving drug which might limit its availability.

It was also argued that penicillin itself could not be patented as it was a natural product from fungi. How do you patent something which occurs in nature naturally? What could be patented was the production method but Florey was insistent. This was unethical.

Sadly, the American company who had used all the Oxford research to develop penicillin did not share Professor Florey's ideals.

They patented the drug and so at the end of the war Britain had to pay royalties for a drug which we had developed.

In an attempt to make a point, when British scientists developed ampicillin, a different version of penicillin, they gave it the brand name 'Penbritin' short for penicillin from Britain.

So are there any lessons for today?

First of all, it was the result of an international effort using both public and private expertise.

In fairness it costs pharmaceutical companies billions to develop a new drug. They need a patent to recoup their costs.

Unlike penicillin Remdesivir, was developed by an American company although led by a Czech scientist.

At the same time we must not forget Americans such as Bill Gates has done more for worldwide health that anyone else.

Governments and companies must have an ethical as well as a business side as we continue worldwide research for both treatment and a vaccine for Covid-19.

Also, it is worth remembering that Ernest Chain was an asylum seeker when he isolated penicillin.