Drug Discovery in Pandemics

22 July 2021


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In June 2021, the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge convened a workshop with the aim of exploring key lessons and themes which have emerged in the area of drug discovery throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Initiated by Dr Charlotte Summers, Reader in Intensive Care Medicine, University of Cambridge and chaired by Professor Patrick Chinnery, Clinical Director, Medical Research Council, the session offered an opportunity for relevant stakeholders from academia, government, and the private sector to participate in an open conversation reflecting on their experiences throughout the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, while capturing key lessons learnt about therapeutics discovery and development in pandemics. The goal of this discussion was to inform national and international policy with respect to pandemic preparedness and drug discovery during pandemics.

Throughout the discussion, participants took a ‘landscape view’, exploring the whole drug development pipeline from preclinical through to phase three research. They emphasized the need not just for just focusing on short-term horizons and repurposing medicines during pandemics. Instead, they suggested that we need to take holistic approaches to the future of research in this area. This will involve addressing regulatory and bureaucratic elements of the current system including the state of regulation, data governance, and data sharing.

Several key themes emerged throughout the workshop, including the importance of platform trials and of central coordination points for research; the need to embed clinical research and research in primary care as a core business within the NHS; the importance of incentivizing research while creating the conditions for research capacity; and the need to build agile systems capable of switching from grassroots approaches to top-down approaches to research at the onset of acute health emergency conditions. Workshop participants also emphasized a need to develop a sustainable model of research and supporting infrastructure – including relevant manufacturing - which can contribute to pandemic preparedness, while serving other purposes outside of pandemic conditions. Here, participants repeatedly returned to the analogy of ‘building roads, rather than roadmaps’, as a recommended approach going forward.

Workshop participants also identified several weaknesses within the current systems which should be addressed going forward, including improving and diversifying pandemic preparedness, strengthening phase 2 trials, addressing diversity issues, and a current shortage of networks and new partnerships which are genuinely global in their reach. With respect to pandemic preparedness specifically, participants stressed the need to ensure that our approach going forward spreads a lot wider than traditional treatments for conditions such as flu, and that it is built with the flexibility and agility to adapt to novel pathogens and pandemic threats.

Ultimately, participants expressed their hope that the lessons from the covid-19 pandemic will provide an opportunity for the UK to make improvements across the whole of public health, research, and medicine, with the end goal of assembling structures that can prepare us for future pandemics while leading the UK to become the place to do clinical trials and treatment development globally. The workshop report can be accessed here.