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Last Updated

27 Jun 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2003


Pfizer Sees Progress on Drugs For Malaria, Smallpox , SARS


Pfizer Inc. said its scientists are making progress against infectious scourges including malaria, smallpox and SARS.

The initiative closest to reaching patients involves treating drug-resistant malaria with Zithromax, an antibiotic often prescribed for respiratory infections. On severe acute respiratory syndrome, Pfizer said more than 10 chemicals in its research library had shown "significant activity against the SARS virus in laboratory tests" conducted by the government.

The update, presented at Pfizer's headquarters in New York, came as the U.S. government is crafting a prescription-drug benefit for the elderly that the pharmaceuticals industry worries could lead to price controls and hurt profits.

Henry McKinnell, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive, asserted that Pfizer's humanitarian endeavors -- such as treating malaria -- are possible only if it remains profitable. "Breakthroughs such as [these] probably would not be possible" without Pfizer's extensive scientific resources, global scope and financial strength, Mr. McKinnell said.

Malaria afflicts 300 million people world-wide, mainly in poor countries, and leads to one million fatalities annually.

"We can afford some projects of this type, as long as we have a system that encourages us to take high risks in search of high rewards," Mr. McKinnell said.

Some investors also wonder if Pfizer has become so big that its sheer size imperils its research productivity. In April, Pfizer completed a $56 billion acquisition of Pharmacia Corp. That deal put even more distance between Pfizer, the world's largest drug maker since 2000, and the rest of the pharmaceuticals pack.

In early clinical tests conducted in India, Pfizer found that when Zithromax is paired with chloroquine, a 30-year-old treatment, the combination is about three times as effective against malaria as either drug alone. Pfizer said it hoped to embark within three months on expanded clinical tests involving at least 1,200 patients in Asia, Africa and South America.

If the combination proves effective, which isn't guaranteed, Pfizer intends to make the drugs available through donation programs similar to existing initiatives for Pfizer drugs used in developing countries to treat people with HIV/AIDS and trachoma, an infection that blinds.

On the SARS front, Dave Matthews, a scientist at Pfizer's research center in La Jolla, Calif., said Pfizer is pursuing the best chemicals among 370 that have been screened against the virus "in the hope that we could rapidly respond if SARS should return next fall or winter."

Finally, Pfizer said it would share an experimental medicine with scientists at Harvard University as a lead for possible smallpox treatments.