PharmExec Blog

WHO Brings Big Pharma Together to Fight Debilitating Diseases

A new report from WHO on overcoming the impact of neglected tropical diseases has spawned a $150 million funding and donation initiative from Big Pharma.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced an initiative involving six Pharmaceutical companies—Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, and Eisai of Japan—that will bring much-needed funding and research to several neglected yet debilitating diseases.

The 17 chronic infectious diseases the new funding will focus on include leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, and sleeping sickness, and many are found in very poor populations.

The initiative came along with the release of a new report from WHO, titled “Working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases,” and a speech by Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of WHO. “What brings these diseases together is our collective failure as an international community to do a better job of reducing poverty and addressing the diseases that are bred by poverty,” she says.

Impoverished settings, substandard housing, poor hygiene, and disease-spreading insects and animals all play a factor in the spread of these diseases. While the consequences of long-term infection vary from disease to disease, some of the more severe results can include blindness, disfiguring scars and ulcers, severe pain, limb deformities, impaired mental and physical development, and damage to internal organs, according to WHO.

Together, the 17 diseases covered in the WHO report are endemic in 149 countries and territories, and impair the lives of at least one billion people.

WHO has been focusing on practical ways to obtain more private sector support to fight these 17 diseases, which represent an effort by multilateral agencies to prioritize around the most challenging and badly resourced ailments rather than to tackle every public health threat afflicting the poor.  Many critics of aid flows claim that three key diseases—malaria, HIV, and TB—are attracting too many resources at the expense of tropical diseases that might be more easily addressed if the commitment is made.

As part of the effort to overcome the global impact of these diseases, Novartis has renewed its commitment to donate an unlimited supply of multidrug therapy and loose clofazimine for leprosy and its complications; GlaxoSmithKline has announced a new five-year commitment to expand its donation of albendazole through WHO; and Sanofi –Aventis has agreed to renew its support for the WHO program to eliminate sleeping sickness. Additionally, Bayer has started discussions with WHO on how to evolve its current commitment to fight sleeping sickness and Chagas disease; Eisai has committed to work towards the global elimination of lymphatic filariasis; and Johnson & Johnson is expanding its donation of mebendazole to supply up to 200 million treatments per year for treatments of intestinal worms in children.

“Decades of experience tell us that health initiatives survive long enough to deliver sustainable results only when they are nationally owned and aligned with national priorities and capacities,” says Dr. Chen. “By expanding coverage, we can actually prevent many of these diseases. This is a first-time opportunity for some very ancient diseases.”

An important question going forward is whether the six participating companies will share their work and—with WHO cooperation—start to build effective multistakeholder partnerships around these priority diseases. To date, such partnerships have been hard to cement; most companies have preferred to go it alone.  Also unclear is how this initiative ties in to actions taking place in the field, where aid donors hold sway and the need for improved distribution networks to deliver improvements in drug technologies has long been recognized, but with scant progress to date.

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One Comment

  1. Diane Monjay
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting article. One of the biggest hurdles to any success in addressing the needs of neglected diseases in developing countries is access, which was barely mentioned – only in the last sentence of this article. Donations of drugs are a wonderful step, but I am aware that at least one health minister in Africa, when asked how much they could afford to pay for a specific treatment, said “free is too expensive”. This underscores the mind-numbing strategic issue with getting the medicine to the intended recipients, without trained medical professionals, clinics, decent roads, transportation, and a sustainable distribution system. And many of these countries, unfortunately, are rife with corruption, which creates a market for diversion, or just a large black hole of ineffectiveness at best.

    I give credit to the pharma companies that donate drug. Without medicine, there is no cure, no treatment. Commitment from the affected countries is key – not just commitment to develop access systems, but commitment to eliminate corruption. However, without monies for carefully designed, protected, and supported infrastructure for access, “free” is just too expensive.

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