Today’s system of vaccine development “is not well suited for responding to global public health needs,” but it was at one time and could be again, according to Kendall Hoyt, a faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine of Dartmouth College.
An Easton elementary and middle school student, before going on to independent-school secondary education, Hoyt earned a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from Duke University in 1993 and a doctorate in science and technology in 2002 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hoyt makes her negative assessment in an article on vaccines appearing in the June issue of The New Republic magazine, in which she points to a “tangle of intellectual property protections’’ as impediments to expediting the development of vaccines for epidemics and pandemics.
“When researchers have to navigate multiple patents to assemble the knowledge required to develop a vaccine, it slows progress,” Hoyt is quoted in the TNR article, in which she is identified as an expert on the subject.
But that was not always the case, as Hoyt asserts in her book, Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense (2012), and reprises in the TNR article. She is a former member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Department of Defense’s Programs to Counter Biological Threats.
Out of wartime necessity and purpose in the 1940’s, and for decades thereafter, “federally directed programs integrated vaccine research across disciplines, facilitating information exchange and technology transfer,” said Hoyt in the article.
That changed in the 1980’s after vaccine programs were constrained by intellectual property concerns and market demands, which fragmented the process of researching vaccines, according to Hoyt’s analysis in the TNR article. “It’s harder today to consolidate and apply relevant knowledge to vaccine development, even though the stock of knowledge is much greater.”
But five years ago, Hoyt held out hope for a systemic change in the research and development of vaccines. It was in an article she wrote for the magazine, Wired, in 2015, reflecting back on the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014. The article’s headline was: “Vaccines Weren’t Ready, We Can Do Better.”
The Ebola virus claimed over 10,000 lives in four West African countries in the course of a year before an effective vaccine came into use. That vaccine was described by Hoyt as a “tremendous victory for global health, but one that “could have come much sooner.”
“In an outbreak, research and development needs to be able to attack timelines as well as pathogens. Developers must ask: Can we build generic vaccine scaffolds that require minor modifications for different pathogens? Can we do this in a way that accelerate development times, lowers costs, and facilitates regulatory review?”
After asking those question in her review of the Ebola crisis, Hoyt cited examples of a handful of pharmaceutical companies that at the time were “investigating vaccine and development platforms” to expedite vaccine research and development
In the Ebola article, Hoyt also noted new vaccine investments by the U.S. government, including a concept acceleration program at the National Institute of Health, three new Centers for Innovation in Advance Development, and a new regulatory science initiative within the Federal Drug Administration.
“If they work together, these new programs could reduce the lag time between the moment a pathogen appears [and] the moment it gets a safe and effective countermeasure … [It] could save millions in a severe pandemic.”
The pathogen Hoyt anticipated in her writings came and hundreds-of-thousands have been lost across the globe to the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, the world awaits the arrival of the countermeasure.