Haiti is the only nation in the Latin American and Caribbean region still considered a least developed country (LDC) by the United Nations. After this month’s earthquake devastated the nation of 9.7 million, it has been heartwarming to see hundreds of disaster relief crews and humanitarian organizations respond to the crisis. Pharmaceutical companies have been part of the picture as well—delivering millions of dollars in funds and medicines, either directly to Haiti or through nonprofit organizations. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is among the many pharmaceutical manufacturers, including Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, Amgen, Merck, Eli Lilly, contributing aid to Haiti.
In fact, GSK, with headquarters in London, United Kingdom, and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, has been leading the way when it comes to the pharma industry using its resources and global network to shine a light on needs outside the industrialized world. It was about a year ago that the pharma giant announced its plan to create a patent pool to encourage the development of new drugs for 16 neglected tropical diseases that largely occur in least developed countries. The plan allows companies to license GSK’s patents in an effort to strengthen and grow global research in finding treatment and cures for these diseases. The project also aims to reduce the price of the company’s patented medicines in developing nations, including its products for asthma, hepatitis B, and malaria, to no more than 25% of the drug price. Tropical diseases aren’t to be taken lightly—consider malaria alone, with one child in Africa dying every 30 seconds, according to Roll Back Malaria, a global partnership launched by the UN.
Today, GSK’s CEO Andrew Witty spoke to a group of bloggers gathered in downtown Manhattan to provide on an update on the project as well as some new related efforts. Sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, Witty’s talk focused on open innovation.
Witty described GSK’s next endeavors as part of the project announced last year. Being called an ‘open innovation’ strategy—new efforts include:
-A new open lab in the company’s Tres Cantos, Spain research center with $8 million seed funding for new research (60 scientists from around the world will have access to the lab)
-The availability of 13,500 malaria compounds to the public (license free, royalty free) to focus on malaria treatments for LDCs
-New collaborations to share IP for neglected tropical diseases. Specifically, BIO Ventures for Global Health will run the company’s “knowledge pool” of patents for tropical diseases announced last year
-A pledge to create a sustainable pricing model for the company’s malaria candidate vaccine (RTS,S—a vaccine in late stage clinical trials in seven African countries)
-Grants totaling $2.5 million to be made to the GSK African Malaria Partnership which includes projects with Save the Children, Family Health International, African Medical Research Foundation, and the Planned Parenthood Foundation of Nigeria.
The overall idea is to create fields of use in therapy areas, he explained. “We need a more pluralistic solution to global problems—we need to be open minded…to accomplish new things,” Witty said.
And why neglected diseases? Witty notes an interest on a personal level. He notes having spent enough time in LDCs and rural parts of Africa to be passionate about the opportunity that would be created if only the world could create a material difference. 70% of the global health burden is in Africa, he notes, so on a very obvious human level, we ought to be doing everything we can to help with this problem. In addition, GSK’s advanced malaria vaccine is about two years away from its development program. Making pricing of that vaccine as low as possible (i.e., the cost of making it plus a 5% return that could be reimbursed back into R&D)—so that those who need it can access it is a company goal. The company is also working with UNITAID to open a patent pool on HIV treatments. If the malaria project works, GSK would consider similar efforts for other neglected tropical diseases, Witty said.
In terms of the GSK patent pool, Witty noted that he’s not surprised no other pharma companies have followed GSK’s lead yet to share their patents or molecules for additonal R&D toward neglected diseases. Glaxo had a long time to discuss and think over the project before announcing it in early 2009. But once they see it start to work, he says, they’ll join.
In the end, the effort may help LDCs overall. Many LDCs have missing pieces such as clinics without water or airports with medicine but drugstores without medicine, Witty described. At some point, we’ll have to decide that this shouldn’t be the status quo as a public health standard, he said. Every company working in these nations and making profit should contribute two or three percent of its profits into the countries’ healthcare infrastructure.
Other companies are carrying out similar efforts. Take Merck & Co.’s Fall 2009 partnership with the UK’s Wellcome Trust to create a new company to develop and deliver vaccines to individuals in developing countries. And overall, reports the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), the R&D pharma industry has made 1.75 billion health interventions (i.e., medicines, training or education, vaccines) between 2000 and the end of 2007 in low- or middle-income countries, according to a Nov. 2008 press release .
Each of these efforts work toward the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, which UN member states aim to achieve by 2015 . Three of the eight goals are health-centered (Goal 4: Reduce child mortality; Goal 5: Improve maternal health; Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases). With only five years left to achieve these momentous objectives in countries such as Haiti and those throughout Africa, it is efforts like those of GSK and other pharma companies that could make the difference. Many people outside of industry assume Big Pharma is just out for the money. Here is case where that is simply not true.