Merck’s joint venture with the Wellcome trust to develop vaccines for the developing and less-developed world is a potentially pathbreaking solution to address the needs of these constituencies. But apart from the vaccines that this joint venture will hopefully help bring to market at affordable prices, it also has other benefits.
One, the JV is a big-ticket foreign investment in research and development of pharmaceuticals in India, where the centre – Hilleman Laboratories – will be located. Both sides have committed seed funding of a combined $148 mn over seven years or an average of $20mn a year, something that few, if any, vaccine companies in India can commit to original vaccine R&D even if they’d like to. Yet, it provides an opportunity close to home for interested Indian producers to partner early on in the development process as one stated intent is to combine forces with local companies at some point.
Two, industry has long lamented that India’s biology skills have not kept pace with its chemistry skills. While there may be biology and biotech graduates aplenty, few understand how their learnings can be applied in industrial research. This is because while chemists have always been in demand because of India’s reverse-engineering industry, the biologist’s star has risen more recently as Indian companies began investing in new drug discovery – which requires deep knowledge of both. Yet, even today, these companies are nowhere as numerous as the ones doing only copycat chemistry thus providing far fewer opportunities for learning and cross-pollination as scientists move around. Initiatives like this one could therefore be useful in helping to steepen the learning curve.
Clearly, an experiment worth watching closely.