It’s getting harder for the pharmaceutical industry to ignore neglected diseases. The globalization of national economies and the rise in air travel are increasing the potential for exposure to these diseases, which previously had been limited to the developing world. “Now is the time to have this discussion,” Kishor M. Wasan, chair-elect of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists’s Pharmaceuticals in Global Health Focus Group, told Pharmaceutical Technology earlier this month. Industry now seems to be getting the message.
Last week, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations, founded WIPO Re:Search, a forum for public and private organizations to share intellectual property (IP) and expertise with global-health researchers. By establishing a public database of IP, WIPO Re:Search aims to help develop new drugs and vaccines to treat neglected tropical diseases, malaria, and tuberculosis. The National Institutes of Health and companies such as AstraZeneca, Eisai, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Pfizer, and Sanofi have agreed to work with the group.
To join WIPO Re:Search, member organizations agree to let the group license their IP to researchers on a royalty-free basis in many cases. But some observers say that these terms will not make information accessible enough. “Instead of allowing all countries where neglected diseases are prevalent to access the products, the initiative restricts royalty-free licenses to least-developed countries only, with access for other developing countries negotiable,” said Doctors without Borders in a press statement. Many patients that suffer from neglected tropical diseases do not live in least-developed countries. “In the Americas, for example, Chagas disease affects 21 countries, but the consortium will only provide royalty-free licenses for Haiti, where Chagas is not endemic,” according to the statement.
I think that WIPO’s initiative has great potential to help ease suffering and save lives. It’s encouraging to see the pharmaceutical industry dedicate resources to treating diseases that do not necessarily represent lucrative markets. And, by pooling a large amount of expertise, collaborations such as this one promise to solve stubborn problems more quickly than might otherwise be the case. But Doctors without Borders seems to be raising legitimate concerns. Considering its overall profitability, does the pharmaceutical industry have an obligation to help countries in need?