Pharmaceutical companies do not have many fans among development workers.
This is a shame, because the development of effective pharmaceuticals has been one of the most transformative new technologies of the last century, increasing life expectancy and the quality of life in industrialised countries and developing countries.
One reason that pharmaceutical companies get a bad rap is that there are some diseases in tropical countries which have been “neglected” – in the sense that there is not much investment in research and development in these diseases, partly because the people who suffer from these conditions are very poor, so there is unlikely to be a commercial return to finding new drugs.
We spend ten times as much looking for cures for baldness as we do looking for cures for malaria.
I can see why this pursuit of profit leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some activists. Personally I don’t blame drugs companies for this. They are responding to the economic incentives we set for them. Indeed, they have a legal duty not to waste their shareholders’ money. If we don’t like the priorities that emerge from these incentives, we should set them different incentives rather than gripe about it.
So here is some good news. The World Health Organisation today published a new report on neglected diseases, Working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases, which covers 17 neglected tropical diseases.
Some of the diseases you will have heard about (such as sleeping sickness and guinea worm). Some, I guess, you may never have come across: but the burden of suffering they cause across the developing world is immense.
And what is really cool is that drugs companies today announced some important new commitments to provide drugs for these diseases free of charge:
- Novartis renewed its commitment to donate an unlimited supply of multidrug therapy and loose clofazimine for leprosy and its complications.
- GlaxoSmithKline announced a new five year commitment to expand their donation of albendazole through WHO beyond lymphatic filariasis to treat school-age children for soil transmitted helminthiases in Africa. The commitment includes 400 million doses per year for this purpose.
- Sanofi-aventis has agreed to renew its support for the WHO programme against sleeping sickness for the next five years.
- Bayer has started discussions with WHO on how to expand their current commitment to fight sleeping sickness and Chagas disease.
- EISAI has committed to work towards the global elimination of lymphatic filariasis by providing diethylcarbamazine (DEC) and
- Johnson&Johnson has recently also announced expanding its donation of mebendazole to supply up to 200 million treatments per year for treatment of intestinal worms in children.
This is a big deal. Though this WHO statement is wrapped up in medical language, it means, for example, that GSK have just announced they will give away drugs which prevent intestinal worms in children. This is one of the most cost effective development interventions we know of. Worms infect more than one third of the world’s population, especially children and the poor. These worms do not normally cause acute illness, but rather a long term, chronic malaise which damages almost all aspects of a child’s development, including health, nutrition, learning and access to education. A few years ago Miguel and Kremer showed that deworming is a very cost-effective way to increase school participation. Deworming all the world’s children will make a huge difference to their life chances and their well-being.
There are no magic bullets in development. Free drugs does not mean that they will reach the poor. There will need to be investment in health systems and logistics to make sure these drugs reach people. For example, the UK Department for International Development has given £25 million to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative. As a result of today’s announcement by drugs companies, SCI will not have to buy drugs, so all that money can be used to ensure that drugs reach people who need them.
Hats off to the drugs companies. Credit where it is due.