[Ip-health] FT: Big pharma battles charge of tardiness on Ebola

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Fri Oct 24 08:46:16 PDT 2014


October 24, 2014 12:20 pm
Big pharma battles charge of tardiness on Ebola

Andrew Ward, Pharmaceuticals Correspondent

Prominently displayed on a bookshelf in Sir Andrew Witty’s west London
office is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, *Long Walk to Freedom*.

It reflects the GlaxoSmithKline
<http://markets.ft.com/tearsheets/performance.asp?s=uk:GSK> chief
executive’s affinity with South Africa, where he cut his teeth as a young
country manager in the early 1990s.

But, by signalling respect for the late president, it is perhaps also a
repentant nod to the public relations disaster of the late 1990s when big
pharma decided collectively to sue the Mandela government for violating HIV
drug patents.

Fifteen years later, the industry is once again under ethical scrutiny as
critics question why it has failed to make more progress in tackling Ebola
in the four decades since the deadly virus first emerged from the jungles
of central Africa.

GSK and its peers have been ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into
programmes to treat other neglected tropical diseases in recent years, but
Ebola research had been largely left to US government scientists worried
about potential use of the virus for bioterrorism.

Big pharma is now belatedly scrambling to help, with GSK and Johnson &
Johnson  <http://markets.ft.com/tearsheets/performance.asp?s=us:JNJ>both
experimental Ebola vaccines that had previously received little attention.

But the crisis has again raised questions over whether the pharmaceuticals
industry, with its strong patent protections and profit motive, is
adequately meeting the health needs of the developing world.

David Redfern, GSK’s chief strategy officer, says the company has learnt
lessons from past mistakes. Its HIV drugs are now licensed on a non-profit
basis to an organisation called the Medicines Patent Pool, which in turn
makes them available for generic manufacturers to supply at low prices to
poor countries.

In middle-income nations, GSK uses a tiered pricing system based on
countries’ ability to pay.

Rohit Malpani, policy director for the drug access campaign of Médecins
Sans Frontières, the medical charity, says the industry has not gone far
enough. Too few countries are covered by royalty-free licences and the
discounted prices in middle-income countries are too high to ensure
widespread access, he says.

Urging an overhaul of the intellectual property system, he adds:
“Governments should take steps to ensure access to low-cost medicines.”

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