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The drug that buoyed expectations for a coronavirus treatment and drew international attention for Gilead Sciences, remdesivir, started as a reject, an also-ran in the search for antiviral drugs. Its path to relevance didn’t begin until Robert Jordan plucked it from mothballs.

A Gilead scientist at the time, Jordan convinced the company seven years ago to let him assemble a library of 1,000 castoff molecules in a search for medicines to treat emerging viruses. Many viral illnesses threaten human health but don’t attract commercial interest because they lack potential for huge drug sales.

“I kept asking them, ‘Is this okay?’ ” said Jordan, who is now a vice president at a pharmaceutical start-up. “These don’t represent a commercial opportunity but a public health opportunity. Gilead gave me their blessing to do this on the side.”

To make progress, Gilead needed help from U.S. taxpayers. Lots of help. Three federal health agencies were deeply involved in remdesivir’s development every step of the way, providing tens of millions of dollars of government research support. Now that big government role has set up a political showdown over pricing and access. 

Despite the heavy subsidies, federal agencies have not asserted patent rights to Gilead’s drug, potentially a blockbuster therapy worth billions of dollars. That means Gilead will have few constraints other than political pressure when it sets a price in coming weeks. Critics are urging the Trump administration to take a more aggressive approach.

“Without direct public investment and tax subsidies, this drug would apparently have remained in the scrapheap of unsuccessful drugs,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, said earlier this month. Doggett and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) have asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for a detailed financial accounting of federal support for remdesivir’s discovery and development.

The HIV-prevention advocacy group PrEP4All Collaboration, working with the Technology Law & Policy Clinic at New York University, released an analysis Monday that said the government, because it helped cull the drug from hundreds of compounds, probably has a legal right to claim it co-invented remdesivir…Read More…

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