Harvard Public Health NOW

March 14, 2008

Global Fund Proposed for Drugs for Neglected Diseases

Columbia University Professor Thomas Pogge envisions a global fund that will reward drug companies for developing medications to fight diseases of the poor in exchange for giving up patent protection rights.

"There is a better way, a different track," said Pogge, who has received a grant from the Australian government to study the idea of what he calls the "Health Impact Fund."

Thomas Pogge (Thomas_Pogge.jpg)

Thomas Pogge

Pogge is a professorial fellow at the Australia National University Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He spoke at HSPH on February 15 in Snyder Auditorium at an event co-sponsored by the Office of the Dean and the Harvard Medical School Department of Social Medicine.

Under the current system of pharmaceutical trade overseen by the World Trade Organization, cheap generics are not made available until the patent protections expire, usually in 20 years. Pogge, author of World Poverty and Human Rights, charged that the patent system results in high prices, neglects diseases suffered mostly by the poor, and creates a bias that favors drugs that treat symptoms rather than those that cure or prevent diseases.

"The rules are stacked against the poor," said Pogge. He said that illnesses that account for 90 percent of the world disease burden get only 10 percent of all medical research funding.

"Now, it is more lucrative to develop treatments for baldness than for malaria," he said during the annual lecture named for attorney Roger Allan Moore, who was instrumental in the development of the Harvard Community Health Plan back in the 1960s.

If the Health Impact Fund were put into place, drug companies could still develop medications under the patent system. But drugs for so-called neglected diseases, such as malaria, would likely bring greater rewards if developed with the fund in mind, Pogge said. "The killer diseases would become lucrative targets," he said.

Governments worldwide would be asked to kick into the fund, he said. Participation in the program would be voluntary. Poor countries would pay less than rich ones. Pogge envisions that the fund would be backed initially with $4 billion given by governments worldwide.

—Michael Lasalandra. Photo by Suzanne Camarata.