Recently the pharmaceutical behemoth, Merck, announced that it will work with Johnson & Johnson to boost production of the latter's one-dose COVID-19 vaccine in order to help get more Americans vaccinated in a shorter time frame.
Many people seem startled that two competitors in this multibillion-dollar industry would collaborate for the greater good of the public. A brief history lesson, however, would dispel the misconception that this is unprecedented.
In the decade or so before World War II, a poorly understood molecule was discovered in the bacteriology lab of Alexander Fleming at St. Mary's Hospital in London, England. Derived from a mold that grew on one of his petri dishes, the molecule that appeared to kill bacteria was later identified and named penicillin.
However, neither Fleming nor his fellow scientists throughout England were able to purify the substance so that it might be further studied or used to treat disease.
Later, just as techniques to purify penicillin were becoming operational in 1939, World War II made its manufacture in England nearly impossible because the entirety of the British chemical industry used to make its essential ingredients were involved in the war effort. Yet the Allies saw penicillin as a game-changer for them if they could produce enough to treat soldiers who all too often died from common wartime infections incurred through battle or simply from living in filth during the war.
The British turned to America for help.
After a few short years, researchers from American universities and from pharmaceutical companies developed methods to ferment, extract and purify large batches of clinically useful penicillin. Finally, in March 1944, Pfizer opened its first manufacturing plant for large-scale production of this revolutionary antibiotic.
The U.S. War Production Board chose 21 companies to produce enough penicillin to meet the needs of the Allied forces. These included the well-known giants in the industry; Merck, Squibb, Pfizer, Abbott and Lilly as well as smaller, lesser-known labs.
Penicillin has saved many millions of lives since it was put into clinical use in the 1940s. It is still a mainstay antibiotic throughout the world.
Today, the pharmaceutical industry often gets a bad rap; at times, deservedly so.
All of the drug companies are for-profit corporations who must answer to their shareholders. They compete with each other with the goal of identifying medical conditions that are in need of cures and developing new drugs that are both effective and safe, and also likely to bring them large profits.
But, as in the past with penicillin and now with the COVID vaccine, they also have shown that, despite being rivals in business, they can work as partners when needed for the benefit of the human race.
Leonard Lichtblau, of Edina, is a retired pharmacologist at the University of Minnesota.