A lot of this may be about to change following proposals put forward by GlaxoSmithKline's new CEO, Andrew Witty. The Guardian today focussed on reports that GSK is to:
- reduce the cost of drugs to the 50 least developed countries in the world, charging no more than 25% of the price charged in the UK
- plough 20% of it's (vast!) profits back into developing countries to help develop their healthcare services, hospitals etc.
- develop a "patent pool" of IP on processes and chemicals it has patents on, to be made available to NGOs and scientists from other companies in order to support the development of new drugs for a range of diseases.
However, other proposals that reflect a significant change in the ethos of GSK's business practices are likely to attract less attention from the mainstream. These further changes will bring about a new sense of openness from the company, which it is hoped other companies will follow. The first of this is greater transparency in GSK's payments to doctors. This is to be welcomed and will hopefully put a stop to the constant whinging claims from CAM practioners and their supporters that anyone criticising them is in the pay of Big Pharma.
The second of these proposals is a commitment to publishing data and results from all of GSK's research, regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative. This is something that is likely to please Ben Goldacre, who has been calling for an international register of clinical trials for some time.
Whilst it's clear that these proposals are to be welcomed because they are the right thing to do, it's worth bearing in mind that at least some of these proposals make good business sense for GSK. For example, reducing the cost of drugs in the developing world will allow them to compete more effectively with the cheap generic drugs industry that has grown in China and India.
There are also areas where more work could be done. For example, Witty hasn't said a great deal about how GSK could provide more support in the fight against AIDS. In fact, his "patent pools" idea excludes the development of HIV drugs. This is something that has attracted critiscism from Michelle Childs, Director of Policy at Medecins Sans Frontieres, who stated:
"He is saying there is no need for a patent pool for HIV. Our position is that there is an urgent need for a patent pool for HIV because of the rising prices of new first and second line drugs for patients who develop resistance."
Whilst there is more that could be done, this is certainly a very bold a positive step for Witty and GSK. What remains to be seen is the reaction from the rest of the industry. With any luck they will follow where GSK leads.
ETA: James over at JDC325 discusses what some big pharma companies actually are doing in relation to providing free or cheap AIDS drugs to the developing world here.