Embargoed Until:
March 19, 2009
12:01 a.m. Eastern Time



Christopher Fleming

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Calls For Innovative Measures
To Fight Neglected Diseases

In Interview With Health Affairs Editor-In-Chief, Andrew Witty Discusses Patent Pool, Sharing Research Facilities, And Other Proposals

Bethesda, MD -- By pooling some of their as yet untapped intellectual property, drug makers could accelerate progress in developing treatments for the "neglected diseases" that plague about a billion people in the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty says in an interview with Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief Susan Dentzer. http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/abstract/hlthaff.28.3.w411

The idea of such a "patent pool" is one of several ideas Witty has advanced to bolster public health efforts in poorer nations. In his interview with Dentzer, Witty discusses these ideas, which include opening up the company’s global research facility in Tres Cantos, Spain, to researchers from competing drug makers and other organizations. In addition, the GlaxoSmithKline units operating in LDCs will be allowed to reinvest 20 percent of their annual profits into the public health infrastructures in those nations, Witty tells Dentzer.

Neglected tropical diseases include conditions ranging from malaria to leprosy, onchocerciasis ("river blindness") and lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic infection that produces the grotesque swelling known as elephantiasis. Witty says that his proposals do not involve "giving away huge amounts of money," nor do they signal a retreat from the zealousness with which GlaxoSmithKline and other pharmaceutical companies have traditionally guarded their intellectual property (IP) rights in non-LDC markets. Instead, Witty tells Dentzer, his ideas are designed to move the IP debate "off the plateau that I think it’s been stuck on for the last decade" by talking "about whether or not we can have something other than a single mindset on intellectual property."

Patent Pool. Witty describes his patent pool proposal as necessary to address the current lack of a mechanism for developing treatments for neglected diseases. For some diseases that plague poor nations, the issue is finding ways to provide treatments at reasonable costs; for example, Witty pledges that GlaxoSmithKline "will not let price get in the way" of distributing the malaria vaccine that the company is currently developing in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However, for most neglected diseases, "there is no product for us to just go to not-for-profit pricing on, because it hasn’t been innovated yet," Witty explains.

Witty says that he has not talked to other companies about a patent pool or his other proposals, so the details remain to be fleshed out. According to Witty, GlaxoSmithKline does have "a few principles" in mind, such as the fact that any pool should be voluntary. He adds that it is "very unlikely" that GlaxoSmithKline would pool patents related to particular molecules aimed at neglected diseases, since GlaxoSmithKline would already be developing such molecules if it had them. Instead, Glaxo and others would likely pool "‘enabling’ technologies, data, maybe failed trials or other things we’ve done that failed."

Shared Research Facility. Witty describes sharing GlaxoSmithKline’s research facility at Tres Cantos as "the bricks-and-mortar version of the patent pool." GSK is in the lucky position of having the sorts of high-tech resources that researchers working on neglected diseases often lack, "so let’s open up the doors of these facilities, so that other people can come in and make use of them. They will bring in different mindsets, and maybe in collaboration with our people, something new will be generated," says Witty, who adds that the results of these collaboration should be available to everyone for developing treatments to be used in LDCs.

Reinvestments In LDCs. Witty tells Dentzer that GlaxoSmithKline has business units in 18 of the world’s 50 LDCs. "We’re going to give those businesses the freedom to reinvest 20 percent of their profits every year back into the health care infrastructure in the country," he says. The overall revenues of these companies are only $42 million a year, so "you’re talking really, really small amounts," but "we might stimulate other countries to do the same, and then maybe that would start to add up to something that really made a difference."

After the embargo lifts, you can read Dentzer’s interview with Witty at http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/abstract/hlthaff.28.3.w411


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