GlaxoSmithKline chief executive Andrew Witty has outlined ambitious proposals to help improve global public health through a different approach to intellectual property, pricing in poor countries and tackling diseases prevalent in developing areas.

In a speech titled “Big Pharma as a Catalyst for Change”, given at Harvard Medical School, Mr Witty said that “the task before us is huge”. He noted that Africa, for example, has 34 of the 50 poorest countries in the world “and suffers 24% of the global disease burden”. He added that “we need to scale up our existing commitments but that alone will not be enough”.

Mr Witty claimed that “we need to develop new partnerships and new approaches. We need to adopt a new mindset, one which is more innovative, open-minded, flexible and willing to take risks”. In this regard, he laid out four commitments that GSK is giving.

First up is “a more flexible approach to IP in the least developed countries”. Stating that “IP’s primary objective is to incentivise and reward research”, he noted that “there are plenty of neglected tropical disease where there is a severe lack of research. We need to see if we can use IP to help address that gap”.

Patent pool
Specifically, GSK is proposing a “Least Developed Country Patent Pool” for medicines for neglected tropical diseases”. Mr Witty said that “we would put our relevant small molecule compounds or process patents” into the pool, allowing others access to develop and produce new products. “Any benefits from the pool must go in full and solely to LDCs”, he stressed.

Secondly, he stated that GSK will reduce its prices for patented drugs in the LDCs so that they will be no higher than 25% of the developed world “assuming we can cover our cost of goods”. In middle income countries, “we will also be more flexible”, Mr Witty said, “so that prices reflect more closely a country’s ability to pay”.

Thirdly, the CEO called for greater collaboration in fighting diseases of the developing world. He cited the example of GSK’s dedicated research centre into DDW in Tres Cantos, Spain which employs 100 scientists funded in part by partners such as Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development. However, globally, research into DDW “is still too fragmented…we need to have much greater critical mass and partnership between the public and private sectors<” he said.

Mr Witty stated that “we are willing to open up, allowing partners in to our facilities if that helps create a truly world-class, global centre of excellence”. It would be owned, “not just by GSK, but by all of its partners whether they are governments, foundations or other companies,” he said.

Fourthly, he said that “We need to stop saying ‘it’s not our fault there is no infrastructure to deliver healthcare’ and start saying ‘who can we work with to ensure that the infrastructure does exist’?” To do this, GSK will use 20% of the profit made in selling medicines in LDCs to reinvest in infrastructure projects in those countries. “We never want to be seen just as a ‘western’ company. We need to be a local company,” Mr Witty said.

He gave the example of Brazil, “where we are helping them build technical expertise so that in the long run they can produce vaccines themselves”. Such partnerships “ will tie us much more closely to the country we operate in, giving us a stake in its economic and social development. That is how it should be”.

In conclusion, Mr Witty noted that GSK has been working with PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative on a vaccine for over twenty years which is poised to go into Phase III trials. If it works, “we need to make sure nothing gets in the way of access, least of all price”, he said, adding that “we developed this vaccine in partnership; we need to deliver it in partnership”.