In a move that signals a completely new approach in its industry, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has announced that it will participate in a patent pool to allow access to patented chemicals and processes for development of treatment options relating to neglected diseases.
The pharmaceutical industry has long taken criticism for the price of medicines, especially ones required for treatment of diseases in developing countries. The GSK initiative will counter some of this criticism directly by cutting medicine prices in the 50 least developed countries to no more than 25% of the prices in the UK and US, reinvesting profits from these countries back into local hospitals and clinics, and putting any patent rights it has over chemicals and processes related to neglected diseases into a patent pool so that research can be promoted in those areas.
The move has been received with mixed reviews. Although Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has acknowledged the efforts of GSK, the organization takes issue with the fact that the HIV/AIDS is not being considered one of the neglected diseases. According to MSF, there is a gap between what is available for HIV/AIDS treatment and what is needed, and that gap is one that a patent pool could close. In particular, MSF has pointed to the necessity for paediatric formulations and studies to address the prevalence of HIV-positive children.
Even though that may be the case, a cautious amount of praise may be warranted. The so-called “neglected diseases,” such as tuberculosis and malaria, are disease areas where treatment options are often not fully developed simply because it makes more financial sense for companies to invest in research relating to diseases in developed nations. The patent pool is a way to increase the possibility of innovation in treatment options for neglected diseases. At the same time, the move may redefine the comfort level at which other pharmaceutical companies are willing to operate. As Chief Executive of GKS, Andrew Witty put it, “somebody has to move before many people move.” With an industry-leader like GSK being the first to move, that may be enough to reassure other companies to follow along.
MSF and similar organizations undoubtedly have valid concerns about reaching the goal of adequate and affordable treatment options in developing countries. However, the GSK move appears to be a good first step towards that goal.