GSK in the Lead but Who Will Follow

GlaxoSmithKline, one of the bigger of Big Pharma, lengthened its lead in the global health business again by announcing several initiatives to address the health needs of the world’s under-served populations.  GSK, or more specifically, its CEO, Andrew Witty (visionary, iconoclastic, wrong-headed?), described them in a speech on January 20:

– Patent Pool:  BIO Ventures for Global Health will administer the GSK/Alnylam program for the user-friendly licensing of patents for neglected disease drug development, but more importantly, the pool will include access to know-how and data associated with the patents (a concern of mine; see my posting 10/8/09);

– Open Lab:  GSK will welcome up to 60 scientists and their projects from academia and biotech companies to its drug discovery unit in Tres Cantos, Spain, and fund a number of these through a fund, started at $8M;

– Compound Library:  GSK will publish on the web the results of a 5-year screening study of its 2 million compounds against the malaria parasite, including structures and data.

Witty also announced a “sustainable” pricing strategy for its malaria vaccine (“RTS,S”) now in late stage testing.  The price will be set at the cost of product plus a small profit (he mentioned 5%) with the profit earmarked for GSK’s neglected disease drug research. Although he noted during the Q and A that this type of pricing would be product-specific (e.g., it did not apply to HIV therapeutics since HIV was not a neglected disease), I think this is a great precedent, but will also propose that, since $200M of the $500M of the vaccine development cost was donated by the Gates Foundation (as Witty noted), 2% of the 5% should go back to the Gates to support global health product innovation in other companies.

For the specifics, you can view the speech and Q and A at the Council on Foreign Relations website (CFR) and read the press release (GSK PR) and Andrew’s blog posting (GSK blog).

All good so far, with the devil being in the details.  I am looking forward to see how one applies for space and funding at Tres Cantos (I have a couple projects in mind) and how BVGH will administer the patent pool since one role of the administrator should be to qualify licensees and issue licenses.  In its press release, BVGH mentions only it “will organize disease-specific meetings that identify the gaps in expertise and intellectual property … [and] will then help global health researchers work with industry to fill these gaps ….” (BVGH PR).  It is also unclear if GSK will license out any of the anti-malaria hits it is not pursuing.  Still, these initiatives plus its other neglected disease programs (e.g., African Malaria Partnership grants, collaboration with Medicines for Malaria Venture, 19 products in development [GSK GH]) clearly put GSK ahead in the race.  But is there a race and who else is in it?

A quick look at the rest of Big Pharma finds two categories; those companies that have made addressing global health a priority in their drug discovery and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and those that haven’t.  In the first category are:

1)  GSK:  for the reasons above, but some skeptics, using their broadest, tarriest brushes, would say the GSK wants to distract attention from its record of influence-buying, market-rigging, price-gouging, and general capitalistic rapacity.  Other skeptics may say that so long as the bottom line isn’t negatively affected, shareholders won’t care and will let Andrew be Andrew.

2)  Novartis:  has an active free/affordable medicine access program, two institutes for global health drug/vaccine development, and foundation for “sustainable” development  (Novartis Access), and launched (with Medicines for Malaria Venture) the only pediatric med for malaria in 2009 (Coartem Dispersible).

3)  Merck:  a long-time donor of its meds for neglected disease with a serious commitment to affordable access to its HIV drugs and vaccines (Merck Access).

4)  Pfizer:  has long-term fellows program that places employees with global health non-profits, medicine donations, a health care delivery improvement program, and a relatively small and ineffective grants program (Pfizer GH).

5)  sanofi-aventis:  has a low profile meds access program and some drug development, primarily for malaria, but its vaccine group has a dengue fever vaccine in development (SA Access).

Global health is a low priority for:

6)  Roche:  has taken a small step in GH drug development through a collaboration with OneWorldHealth and has concentrated on HIV drug development and access (Roche GH).

7)  Eli Lilly:  says its is willing to “share” its expertise but has only one serious global disease drug development program in TB which has dual market appeal (Lilly GH).

8)  AstraZencea:  has only a program for TB drug development (AZ GH).

9)  Johnson and Johnson: seems to have minimal interest in neglected diseases for a global company, says it is “enhancing access” to its HIV meds (JNJ GH).

10)  Abbott:  claims to have a commitment to affordable pricing but no commitment to GH product development (Abbott GH).

11)  Bristol-Myers Squibb:  has a minimally-endowed foundation that gives grants, a few of which are relevant to GH (BMS GH).

Not much of a race, yet.

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