Pharmaceuticals: Give, and it shall be given unto you


  • Drug companies in Japan invest in curing diseases of the poor
The kiss of death

JAPAN’s pharmaceutical firms are an inventive bunch: only the American and British drugs industries produced more new medicines between 2005 and 2008. But their record on healing the diseases of the poor is not so good. The Access to Medicine Foundation, a non-profit group, tracks drug firms’ efforts to serve patients in developing countries; and in its ranking of the 20 biggest ones, Japanese firms occupy four of the bottom six rungs.

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That may change. On November 8th the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund announced its first grants, to advance treatments for malaria, tuberculosis and Chagas disease, a potentially fatal and frequently debilitating ailment spread by ghastly, bloodsucking “kissing bugs”. The fund, launched earlier this year, is a public-private partnership that includes five Japanese drugmakers: Astellas, Daiichi Sankyo, Eisai, Shionogi and Takeda.

Criticism of pharma companies for restricting low-income countries’ access to drugs reached a head at the turn of the millennium, when makers of life-saving HIV treatments refused to provide them at affordable prices to patients in Africa. The resulting outrage forced the drug firms to rethink their policies. Today most of the biggest ones tout themselves as allies in the fight against infectious disease.

In some cases this means donating medicines, or licensing technology to makers of generic drugs. In others it means collaborating to develop a new vaccine or treatment. For example, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a British firm that tops the Access to Medicine Foundation’s index, will next year seek regulatory approval for a malaria vaccine. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which is also a partner in the GHIT Fund) helped to finance its development.

With the GHIT Fund, the five Japanese firms are trying a slightly different model. Each will put in $1m a year for five years. Together with investments from the Gates Foundation and Japan’s government, the fund will add up to more than $100m. This will be doled out to partnerships between Japanese and foreign institutions. For instance, researchers at Osaka University and Gulu University in Uganda will get $735,000 to improve the effectiveness of another proposed malaria vaccine.

An important question for the fund, as with any similar endeavour, is how much the resulting new treatments will cost. GSK plans to sell its malaria vaccine at 5% above the cost of production, with proceeds pumped back into research for infectious diseases. Even so, some advocates worry it will still be too expensive. B.T. Slingsby, a former Eisai executive who now runs the GHIT Fund, says that drugs developed in its research programmes will be licensed without royalties in the poorest countries. In other markets, the fund will aim more or less to break even.

The companies’ beneficence may reap long-term rewards, however. For some time they have been seeking to expand their presence beyond Japan’s shores. In 2011 Takeda bought Nycomed, a Swiss drugmaker, for about $14 billion. In 2008 Daiichi Sankyo spent nearly $5 billion on Ranbaxy, an Indian drugmaker that has since been plagued by safety issues. The GHIT Fund will be a far smaller, and less controversial, investment. But it will help the firms build links with prestigious research institutions in America and Europe, and eventually introduce Japanese drug brands to patients, and health ministries, in emerging markets. Aid now may lead to profit later.

Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola is aNaija247news' Southwest editor. He's based in Lagos and writes on the Yoruba Nation political issues, news and investigative reports

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