The Generosity of Drug Companies
At a major press conference this week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 13 drugmakers, along with the World Bank, the US, Britain, and UAE, announced a joint effort to attack 10 neglected tropical diseases. The drug companies will be contributing $785 million to this effort and Gates is pledging $363 million to try to eliminate these diseases in the next decade. This is indeed a noble initiative, one that should be applauded for its ambition and scope. It will involve not just money and medicines, but also the talents of scientists at these companies who will help guide the critical research needed to make breakthroughs in eradicating these diseases. The fact that so many organizations are working together for the first time should help drive the success of this initiative.
But, for the pharmaceutical companies involved, this isn’t something new.
For decades, pharmaceutical companies have been working on programs designed to help people in the developing world. In 1987, Merck began efforts to eradicate river blindness, a disease spread by black fly bites and characterized by disfiguring dermatitis and eye lesions leading to loss of sight. Merck formed a partnership with the World Bank, the WHO, UNICEF and various ministries of health to provide free Mectizan (Ivermectin), which treats river blindness with a single annual dose, to anyone who needs it. More than 69 million Mectizan treatments are given each year across 33 different African and South American countries. The WHO estimates that 40,000 cases are prevented annually as a result of this program.
The Merck example is not unique. Zithromax (azithromycin) is a great drug to treat Chlamyida trachomatis, the bacterium responsible for causing trachoma and the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. In 1998, Pfizer co-founded the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) and, through the ITI, has provided over 54 million treatments of Zithromax to trachoma patients in 15 countries. This program is part of the WHO’s SAFE (Surgery, Antibiotics, Face-washing and Environmental improvement) strategy, which is designed to eradicate trachoma by 2020.
Virtually, every major pharmaceutical company has been involved in these types of efforts. GSK, AstraZeneca, Lilly, Sanofi-aventis and Novartis are all working to combat tuberculosis. Similarly, Pfizer, GSK, Novartis, Eisai and Sanofi-aventis are all working on malaria. The same can be said for AIDS and tropical diseases. In fact, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) lists on its website 213 different efforts aimed at improving the plight of those suffering in the developing world.
Moreover, pharmaceutical companies historically have led all businesses in terms of generosity. In her Forbes article entitled “America’s Most Generous Companies” (October 10, 2010), Jacquelyn Smith reported that in 2009, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, six of the top 10 corporations were pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer led the list with $2.3 billion donated in total cash and product-giving. The top 10 also included Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott, Lilly and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
There are cynics who will say that pharmaceutical companies are only doing this to help their image. The fact is that the companies have been doing this for so long that it is part of their culture. The men and women in these companies who help in these type of projects take great pride in this work. This new public-private partnership to combat 10 neglected diseases is a terrific initiative and hopefully will be met with great success. But for pharmaceutical companies, it is a continuation of decades of work and billions of dollars of investments.