When it comes to a MERS vaccine, for Big Pharma, the money's not there yet

It's been three years since the deadly MERS virus first surfaced in humans, and though it has taken more than 460 lives, for Big Pharma, the economics of a vaccine just aren't there yet.

Since the disease's emergence, virology experts have questioned the logic of spending millions to develop a MERS jab when it may be more effective to trace the source. And, as evidenced by the Ebola outbreak, pharma stands to lose if it's developing a vaccine when an outbreak wanes and thus makes it difficult to conduct trials. Those sentiments have led to frustration and disappointment from the scientific community, which argues that the target for MERS is known and companies have the know-how to develop a vaccine to help sufferers.

The problem, Reuters notes, is that Big Pharma companies are unsure about the economics of a MERS vaccine and that no government has stepped up to pay for a research effort--a divide that's led experts, including billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, to call for governments and pharma companies to work together to back early vaccines development.

"The question is: How long are we going to wait around and just follow these outbreaks before we get serious about making vaccines?" Adrian Hill, a professor and director at the Jenner Institute at Britain's Oxford University, told Reuters. "There is no sign of MERS going away. It's been around since 2012. And there is really clear evidence now of human-to-human transmission."

To date, only the biotechs Greffex, Inovio and Novavax ($NVAX) have done MERS research, which remains preclinical. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), though it doesn't have a MERS program, is "certainly thinking about what we should do if this becomes an issue," the company's Ebola head, Ripley Ballou, told Reuters.

Since the debate arose, some in the field have downplayed the need for a vaccine, instead saying that tracking the source is more important. However, despite critics questioning the commercial promise of a MERS vaccine, Maryland-based Novavax's CFO, Buck Phillips, called it an "emerging market potential" last year. "I think it's very fair to say that there's broad interest out there from healthcare systems around the world, particularly in the Middle East and even now in the U.S.," he said. "Quite frankly, with every additional case, that interest grows."

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