Open science funding cuts leave us ‘unprepared’ for next pandemic

Pooling academic resources vital to countering ‘market failures’ in pharmaceutical industry, says Covid Moonshot pioneer John Chodera

November 22, 2023
Street performer Naked Cowboy walks through the snow on Time Square to illustrate Open science funding cuts leave us ‘unprepared’ for next pandemic
Source: Getty images

Vital efforts to harness open science to find drugs capable of fighting future pandemics could be lost unless long-term funding is secured, a founder of the Covid Moonshot has warned.

As the pioneering global project – which used hundreds of scientists to identify, screen and test molecular compounds for the treatment of Covid-19 – formally reported its results in Science, one of its leading figures, John Chodera, a computational chemist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said he was deeply concerned that similar efforts to crack other deadly diseases could be derailed by a lack of funding.

Under the Covid Moonshot collaboration, more than 18,000 molecular compounds were crowdsourced by a global community of scientists and screened for their likely effectiveness. Some 10,000 biochemical measurements were also made available in real time as part of the world’s first open science community effort to find an anti-viral drug. Those efforts helped to design the model that led to the discovery of Ensitrelvir, now an approved drug in Japan and fast-tracked for consideration by US authorities.

But legacy projects spinning out of that project are at risk amid reports that nine antiviral drug discovery centres that were awarded $577 million (£470 million) in 2022 are unlikely to be funded beyond 2025, said Dr Chodera, part of the ASAP AViDD Center, which applies artificial intelligence to open science anti-viral drug discovery.

“Terminating these centres after three years is like planning to spend $1.2 billion to build a bridge and then deciding to stop halfway across the river,” Dr Chodera told Times Higher Education, citing a recent report to Congress by the US Government Accountability Office. The report said that NIH officials had reported “anticipated future funding has been removed and the program is winding down”.

Campus resource: Eight ways your university can make research culture more open

That would be a tragedy, said Dr Chodera, given the immense success of the Covid Moonshot, which has also produced promising leads for potential cures for other viral pathogens of pandemic concern such as dengue, Ebola, Lassa and MERS.

“During the Covid Moonshot, crowdsourcing proved to be a powerful way to consider many idea-generation methods and insights all at once,” he said. “It was only possible because we had committed to an open science, patent-free approach with the expectation that funding for subsequent development would come from non-commercial sources due to the extraordinary risk to humanity.”

Backed by public investment, this kind of open science drug discovery can help to correct “market failures” seen in the pharmaceutical industry that meant there was no ready treatment for a Covid-like disease when it emerged in late 2019, said Dr Chodera.

“Our compounds turned out to be equipotent against SARS-CoV-1, meaning there is no reason that a discovery effort could not have been mounted in 2006, giving us antivirals able to halt or blunt Covid a full decade earlier,” he said. “Imagine how different the world would have been if we had invested just a few million dollars earlier, compared with the cost of more than 1.1 million lives, $14 trillion in economic damage and millions more disabled in the US alone.”

Predicting that Covid “will not be a singular event” because we are “entering the pandemicene, where climate change is driving animal reservoirs for viruses of human pandemic potential into closer proximity to humans, increasing the likelihood of zoonotic transmission”, Dr Chodera said humanity “will see many more pandemics if we are not prepared”.

“And we are not prepared,” he continued. “There is no market for developing antivirals for pandemics. As a result, we need government investment in these extraordinary risks to humanity.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles