The pharameutical industry's neglect of tropical diseases has deadly consequences for poor people around the world.
The patent-busting battle to get affordable generic AIDS drugs to millions of HIV-positive people in the developing world has received wide publicity. The statistics for AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are startling: in some countries, two out of every three adults are HIV-positive. Less known is the comparably serious threat posed to the developing world by tropical and infectious diseases. Malaria kills millions and is estimated to have slashed Africa's economic power south of the Sahara by half, while sleeping sickness threatens another 60 million people on the continent.
But pharmaceutical companies appear unwilling or unable to make the investment to fight these scourges. Of the world's top 20 drug firms recently polled, none had brought a drug to market in the past five years for neglected tropical diseases. According to specialists, the problem does not lie in the science but in the economics. The main victims of these neglected diseases do not register on the radar of the market because they are so desperately poor.
“We've spent three years investigating this and have found that drug companies have no interest in tropical diseases because there is no market incentive,” says Bernard Pécoul of international humanitarian NGO Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). Instead, drug firms plan to release eight new drugs for impotence and seven for obesity, a recent report by MSF has found, while the illnesses that make up 90% of the global disease burden get only 10% of the research money because they primarily affect poor countries.
To address this obvious gap, MSF, which won the Nobel peace prize in 1999 for its international public health efforts, has just launched its Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative. MSF is working on creating a ‘needs-driven' global drug development network that will provide treatment at cost to the end user. Although the network is not up-and-running yet, MSF already has four pilot projects in the pipeline to develop treatments for three neglected diseases, including resistant strains of malaria, for which some early research has been conducted or candidate drugs exist.
Through these pilots, MSF is attempting to demonstrate that developing medicines for neglected diseases need not cost the earth. MSF argues that a great deal of valuable research lies disused in research laboratories around the world and that drugs already on the market can be adapted for other diseases. “A lot of neglected diseases are quite well-documented. We want to tap into this existing knowledge base and translate it into actual products,” says Pécoul. MSF is setting the groundwork for the network by collaborating with research institutions in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.
MSF envisions the network, once it is up-and-running, as a publicly funded independent system that will cooperate with industry on a scientific, but not financial, level. It hopes to attract money from EU and US governments, as well as those in the developing world. MSF will be holding its first potential donor meeting in Geneva today (25 July).