In brief

  • Some of the largest pharmaceutical companies are witholding data that would speed the discovery of a covid-19 vaccine.
  • They claim commercial confidentiality is a problem.
  • But there is a precedent for sharing data without comprising commercial advantage.

Big Pharma is hoarding data on drugs that might hold the key to ending the coronavirus pandemic, Ara Darzi, director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, claimed today. But such behavior is inexcusable, especially when a precedent for safely sharing data already exists, he insisted. 

Throughout the world, scores of trials are underway in the desperate race for a vaccine to throttle covid-19. Scientists, technologists and artificial intelligence companies are collaborating as never before, with some promising results.  

But these efforts are being hampered by some of the largest pharmaceuticals. They are failing to share data sets that would speed discovery, and hiding behind a veneer of commercial confidentiality, said Darzi.

A blockchain-based system trained on Big Pharma’s data vaults

But there is a solution. In an unprecedented move in June, 2019, 10 of the world’s largest pharmaceuticals—including Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline—came together to announce MELLODDY (short for Machine Learning Ledger Orchestration for Drug Discovery)—the first blockchain-based system which targeted Big Pharma’s extensive data vaults. 

They decided to pool their data to fuel the search for new antibiotics, which are urgently needed as antibiotic-resistance threatens existing treatments.

Almost a million people are now infected with Covid-19. Nearly 50,000 have died. (Image: Shuttertock)

The platform was developed by OWKIN, a blockchain and predictive analytics company. It allows an algorithm to search rival companies’ data without revealing any commercial advantage. The so-called trustless nature of blockchain ensures that companies were bound by the code, rather than each other. 

“The MELLODDY consortium will use Owkin’s blockchain architecture technology to extract insight from multiple datasets without having to first pool the data,” said Mathieu Galtier, Project Coordinator at Owkin, at the time of the announcement.

The coronavirus now ushers in an even great urgency to use technologies such as MELLODDY. 

“All pharmaceutical companies must unlock their chemical libraries so candidate drugs can be identified, and trials to test the most promising treatments begin as soon as humanly possible,” writes Darzi. “We cannot wait. Lives depend on it.”

Let alone Big Pharma’s reputation.

A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the discovery of new antibiotic to MELLODDY.