In the developed world, we sometimes take life-saving medicines for granted. But as I’ve traveled in the developing world, I’ve seen first-hand the huge difference they can make. A new report and two recent announcements are reminders of the important role of the pharmaceutical industry, especially in helping save the lives of people in poor countries.
The new report is the Access to Medicine Index 2010 from the Access to Medicine Foundation, based in the Netherlands. The index ranks 20 of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies on their efforts to make sure that medicines are made for and reach people in developing countries. The latest index found that companies are being more transparent about their efforts to expand access. They’ve also taken steps to make drug pricing more equitable and to increase R&D on diseases affecting poor countries. But in the words of the Index’s founder Wim Leereveld, “the industry as a whole still has a long way to go.”
One example of progress on access is the announcement by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer Inc. that they will accelerate production and distribution of new vaccines against pneumococcal disease, which kills 1.6 million people a year—mostly in developing countries, and half of them children under the age of five.
Glaxo and Pfizer will supply 30 million doses a year, for 10 years, at a price that is more affordable for developing countries. Estimates are that the vaccines could save 900,000 lives by 2015, and up to 7 million lives by 2030. Key to this effort was an innovative financing mechanism, known as an Advance Market Commitment, piloted by the GAVI Alliance. I am pleased that our foundation was able to support this effort in partnership with GAVI, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the national governments of Italy, Canada, Norway, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
In another important effort supported by the foundation, the non-profit Critical Path Institute (C-Path) and the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development (TB Alliance) will coordinate testing of promising combinations of tuberculosis drug candidates from at least 11 different pharmaceutical companies early in the development pipeline.
If you used the historical approach to testing and getting regulatory approval for new TB drugs—individually and then in combination with other drugs—it could take 24 years. This new approach, which the foundation created in partnership with C-Path and the TB Alliance, hopes to develop effective new combination TB treatments in just six years. Importantly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and regulatory authorities in Europe have indicated strong support for accelerating approvals of safe, effective new treatments.
Although many people think of TB as a disease that was conquered long ago, it still kills 1.8 million people a year, mainly in the poorest countries on earth. The current four-drug course of treatment for TB is now 50 years old and requires patients to take numerous pills for six months or longer, which many find difficult, especially given the often-unpleasant side effects. When patients don't complete their course of treatment, the disease can become resistant to the initial drugs. In 2007, there were more than 500,000 cases of drug-resistant TB. New and easier ways to treat TB would be a great step forward.
I believe that these kinds of innovative collaborations between pharmaceutical companies, governments and the non-profit sector are critical to accelerating the delivery of medicines, which is critical to saving lives.