Launch of innovative research and development consortium for neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
WHO welcomes this WIPO launch of a consortium aimed at expediting the development of new medicines, diagnostics, and vaccines for the neglected tropical diseases, malaria, and tuberculosis.
The demand for such products is huge, as this group of diseases affects more than one billion people. As we all know, market forces fail to drive innovation because this particular market has virtually no capacity to pay. Any price, when multiplied by the millions, is too high for the bottom billion to pay.
With the world now facing a new era of financial austerity, I view innovation as a key way to maintain the great momentum for better health that marked the start of this century.
For some of these diseases, we have powerful and safe medicines for use in mass prevention campaigns. For others, the drugs are archaic and toxic.
As we know from recent history, any drive to eliminate or eradicate a disease must be accompanied by research as a prerequisite for success.
When disease control efforts are stepped up, especially through the mass administration of medicines, causative agents are put under enormous stress, which is expressed as selective pressure.
Slight mutations that allow a microorganism to resist the full killing power of a medicine are an evolutionary advantage that greatly expedites the development of drug resistance.
The neglected tropical diseases need the kind of innovative attention offered by the consortium being launched today. Sharing and centralizing a database of available intellectual property assets, in an open platform, has great potential to accelerate new product development.
Despite the numbers affected, the neglected tropical diseases usually fall below the radar screen of priority health problems.
These are not diseases that travel widely or threaten more affluent groups. They stay put in areas where housing is substandard, safe water and sanitation are scarce, environments are filthy, and disease-carrying insects and animals are abundant.
Tackling these diseases is tackling a root cause of poverty and vast misery. These diseases blind, maim, disfigure, debilitate, and disable. In many societies, the social stigma they cause, especially for women, is a fate worse than death.
Any incremental improvement in the tools at our disposal pays a huge dividend for masses of people.
Let me encourage the members and supporters of this consortium to make the goals of affordability and accessibility central to your work as new products are developed. Health officials in the developing world tell me time and time again: a vaccine that is too expensive is worse than no vaccine at all.
Equally important is to respect the strong desire, in developing countries, for assistance that helps them build their own R&D capacity to manage their own priority diseases and health needs.
The objective of any form of assistance for health development should be to build self-reliance. In other words, good aid aims to put itself out of business.
Let me also remind this group that game-changing innovations do not always depend on rocket science. For example, patient compliance with leprosy treatment took a huge leap forward when complex regimens were conveniently simplified through the introduction of blister packs.
Finally, let me assure you of WHO support. Although not part of the consortium, WHO will provide advice to WIPO on technical matters, and we are well-positioned to perform this function.
For decades, WHO has had a strong presence in endemic countries, working shoulder-to-shoulder with local health officials.
WHO staff know the demands these diseases make, and the toll they take, in deeply impoverished settings.
Our staff know the improvements to existing products that could make a world of difference through simplified treatment, or fewer side effects, or greater safety allowing administration by non-medical staff.
They can also define the ideal characteristics of a revolutionary new tool that could turn the tide in terms of controlling diseases, especially tool-deficient diseases like leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.
It is my sincere wish that the launch of this consortium will help put some of these age-old companions of poverty out of business.