A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Imagine my horror when I discovered that a major pharmaceutical company has taken away up to $300 million that should have instead been spent developing new medicines for neglected diseases.
Novartis has recently been awarded with a ‘priority review voucher’ for registering its key anti-malarial medicine Coartem in the United States. This voucher is designed to stimulate and reward desperately needed new research and development to treat neglected diseases. These vouchers can potentially be vital tools to encourage companies to invest in diseases prevalent in developing countries.
But Coartem has already been around for seven years and is already widely used across the developing world – and therefore this voucher will not help create incentives for new research and development. Thanks to a critical loophole in the legislation that established the voucher program, Novartis will receive a huge amount of money that will do little to help develop new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics urgently needed in poor countries.
Less than 10% of global health research spending is currently spent on tackling diseases that primarily afflict the poorest 90% of the world. Pharmaceutical companies do not prioritize research and development to address diseases of the developing world, due to lower financial returns in poor country markets.
This means diseases such as Tuberculosis and sleeping sickness – that kill nearly 2 million people each year in poor countries but are under control or non-existent in rich countries - have been neglected for decades. The newest medicines to treat Tuberculosis are over 30 years old!
Funding for research and development is already woefully insufficient, yet medical innovation has the potential to deliver new medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics to overcome diseases that are needlessly killing millions of people. These vouchers need to be used for what they were designed – to stimulate and reward new research and development rather than making large pharmaceutical companies richer.
We hope that Novartis will correct this situation by transparently dedicating this windfall towards new research and development for medicines urgently needed in poor countries.
It is the season for giving after all.
For more information on this issue see Oxfam International’s new report Ending the R&D Crisis in Public Health: Promoting pro-poor medical innovation