The Business of Global Health No. 19

Medtech for All  In a story in the January issue of Technology Review, Antonio Regalado, a consistently good reporter on health science and business, writes about Butterfly Network, a low-profile start-up company that aims to decrease the size and cost of a diagnostic work horse, the ultrasound machine. The founder, serial entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, says the “first goal will to be market an imaging system cheap enough to be used even in the poorest corners of the world” and that the machine will cost a few hundred dollars and be launched in next 18 months.   The company’s website is relatively uninformative but includes the Device strategy statement, “democratizing imaging.” Butterfly is astoundingly well-funded, raising $80 million in November 2014 for a total of $100 million according to a Xconomy Boston story.

More MenAfriVac  As reported in FierceVaccines, WHO approved expanding the use of MenAfriVac to infants under the age of one year, an important segment of the population at risk in the fifteen African countries where meningitis A outbreaks were common. Five years of mass vaccination using the vaccine, first launched in 2010 and now given to more than 215 million people, has resulted in virtual elimination of the disease as described in a Reuters story. The vaccine is also unique in that it resulted from a collaboration of the NIH, Gates Foundation, and the Serum Institute of India, a for-profit vaccine maker; cost only about $50 million to develop; and costs 50 cents a shot (for background see my post, “Watch Out Big Pharma”).

In the Nick ‘o Time  As reported this week in FiercePharma, the FDA of China approved a new type of polio vaccine that was developed by the Institute of Medical Biology of the Academy of Medical Sciences with help from WHO and agencies of the US, Japan, and the EU. The vaccine is the world’s first Sabin-strain-inactivated vaccine and will be safer than the wild-type-strain-inactivated and the Sabin-strain-attenuated vaccines, both developed in the 1950s (WHO Polio Vaccines). The vaccine will be used in WHO’s polio eradication program which is in crisis due to an unprecedented resurgence of the disease in the developing world that WHO designated a pubic health emergency last May (WHO Statement). In a FierceVaccines story, a representative of GlaxoSmithKline, one of two manufacturers of the current vaccines, estimated that the program will require 1.5 billion doses.

Full Speed Ahead  As reported in FierceVaccines, a WHO assistant director said that the Ebola vaccines under development by Glaxo and Merck will enter late-stage trials in Africa in the next two months. This week it was also announced that the research consortium developing another Ebola vaccine and led by Johnson & Johnson (JnJ) will receive a grant of 100 million euros ($116 million) from the European Commission’s Innovative Medicines Initiative which will be added to the $200 million committed by JnJ (FierceBiotech story). The JnJ vaccine recently started Phase I trials.

Clarification Please  In my attempt at an editorial last week, I posited that the current astronomical valuations of biotech companies may be based on a soon-to-evaporate assumption of equally astronomical future revenues. While I stand by my positing, I should note that Gilead’s latest hepatitis C drug is called Harvoni, a combination pill that includes Solvadi and priced at $95,000 per course (Healthline.com News) and that Gilead is not nonexclusively licensing it. Also, even with competition among the hepatitis C drugs and resulting lower prices, because it is likely that hundreds of thousands of patients will be treated each year, Gilead (and other companies) will probably sell about $1 billion of its hep C drugs annually. And also, Gilead’s nonexclusive licensing of Solvadi puts the company’s profits at risk in countries wanting to reduce drug costs by importing generics.

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