Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Big Pharma as the “Good Guys”: One Reason to Embrace Tropical Disease Research

Here are words you don’t hear too often at Washington, DC press conferences (ed. note: or anywhere else for that matter): “The pharmaceutical companies are really the good guys.”

But that is what Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases executive director Peter Hotez said July 16 during a briefing at the National Press Club to announce the appointment of former Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (pictured right) as the non-profit partnership’s new “global ambassador.”

Thompson was equally effusive in his praise for industry. “The pharmaceutical companies…are doing a wonderful job,” he said.

At a time when industry needs all the good press it can get, Hotez and Thompson sure made involvement in the campaign to eradicate rare tropical diseases (think hookworm, etc.) sound like a case where industry can do well by doing good.

We would add another reason for industry to pay attention to tropical diseases: a new incentive program that rewards sponsors of drugs approved to treat a qualifying condition with a priority review voucher—good, in theory at least, for a faster FDA review of another, more commercially vital, project.

The RPM Report has just published an analysis of the new voucher program. (Non-subscribers can click here for a free trial.)

That voucher program is not the focus of the Global Network, per se. They are concentrating on raising awareness (and funds) to get already approved medicines to the afflicted patient population.

Thompson singled out four companies in particular—Pfizer, Merck, Novartis and Johnson & Johnson—for donating drugs to treat infectious diseases as part of a “rapid impact package,” making it possible for the program to treat the seven most common tropical diseases for just 50 cents per person per year.

He gave special praise to a fifth company—Sanofi Aventis—which “is not even an American company” but sent executives from France to attend and support the initiative. He praised Sanofi at length for setting up a dedicated division to fight neglected diseases.

Thompson has not always had such kind words for industry: he jawboned Bayer over the pricing of Cipro after the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 and memorably lamented the fact that the Medicare prescription drug benefit did not give HHS the authority to negotiate prices more broadly as he left the agency in 2004.

In the context of the Global Partnership, though, Thompson has nothing but good things to say about the industry. For instance, he recalled a trip to Africa he took as HHS Secretary, where he visited an orphanage along with then-Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell. Thompson recalled seeing McKinnell being moved to tears while holding an HIV-positive newborn. “He was so moved he wrote a check,” Thompson said.

Talk about putting a caring face on Big Pharma!

Still, the combination of the voucher program and the public relations opportunity to join in a global campaign to alleviate tropical disease is already causing companies to look more closely at tropical disease research. Hotez says one goal of the Global Network is to raise awareness so that the names of the most common diseases of poverty are "household words." That may be ambitious, but it sure sounds like there is a strong case to make them boardroom words.

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