Oxfam calls for complete revamp of medical R&D

“For too many years the poor have been handed the left-over scraps from our global system of medical innovation.”
Rohit Malpani
Policy advisor, Oxfam
Published: 13 November 2008

New approaches to end neglect of medical R&D for the poorest are needed

November 13th 2008: Governments and the pharmaceutical industry are still failing to develop new medicines and vaccines to address diseases of the developing world, said Oxfam International in a new report today.

Oxfam, which will be attending a conference on the issue today hosted by the European Commission in Brussels, says that after years of scientific progress, still less than ten percent of all medical research is being dedicated to diseases afflicting more than 90 percent of the world’s population.

Tropical diseases such as dengue fever or sleeping sickness affect millions of people in developing countries and yet only receive $1 out of every $100,000 spent globally on medical R&D, according to the report Ending the R&D Crisis in Public Health.

“Business as usual is just not getting the job done,” said Oxfam’s Rohit Malpani, co-author of the report. “R&D that focuses on the developing world’s urgent needs is still highly dependent and driven by intellectual property, even though this system is demonstrably failing the poor.”

Rich countries are continuing to lag seriously behind in providing resources for funding research for neglected diseases. Germany only provided $20 million in 2007 towards medical innovation benefiting the poor, a mere 0.12% of its overall research budget.

Even when governments do spend to improve R&D, their initiatives have often been ineffective and wasteful, with little coordination and transparency. Advanced market commitment (AMCs) for instance – a promising mechanism to stimulate innovation for vaccines for neglected diseases – saw its first attempt being misspent.

The plan was to develop a vaccine to prevent pneumococcal disease, responsible for the deaths of 1.6 million children every year. Donors including Canada, the UK, Russia, Italy, Norway and the Gates Foundation handed over more than $1.5 billion to pharmaceutical companies Wyeth and Glaxo-Smith Kline. However, the money was spent to modify and deliver a vaccine that was already being developed for rich markets, failing to contribute to any real innovation.

“At a time when donors are held accountable for their aid budgets, it makes little sense that vital funds dedicated to R&D are badly misspent,” said Malpani.

Oxfam said there is no shortage of ideas to improve research and development, such as prize funds and patent pools. The agency calls on the World Health Organization (WHO) to establish a “Global Fund for Research and Development” that would be dedicated to stimulating additional innovation in order to address the massive burden of diseases that primarily affect poor people in developing countries.

Malpani: “For too many years the poor have been handed the left-over scraps from our global system of medical innovation. A U-turn on R&D practices from the current industry-led and uncoordinated system is badly needed.”