The new head of Business in the Community member GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Andrew Witty, has told the Guardian he will slash prices on all medicines in the poorest countries, pledge profits to be spent on hospitals and clinics and – most ground-breaking of all – share knowledge about potential drugs that are currently protected by patents.
Witty says he believes drug companies have an obligation to help the poor get treatment and he challenges other pharmaceutical giants to follow his lead.
Pressure on the industry has been growing over the past decade. Drug companies have been repeatedly criticised for failing to drop their prices for HIV drugs while millions died in Africa and Asia.
Since then, campaigners have targeted them for defending the patents, which keep their prices high, while attempting to crush competition from generic manufacturers, who undercut them dramatically in countries where patents do not apply.
But speaking to the Guardian, Witty pledged significant changes to the way the drug giant does business in the developing world.
He said that GSK will:
- Cut its prices for all drugs in the 50 least developed countries to no more than 25% of the levels in the UK and US – and less if possible – and make drugs more affordable in middle-income countries such as Brazil and India.
- Put any chemicals or processes over which it has intellectual property rights that are relevant to finding drugs for neglected diseases into a “patent pool”, so they can be explored by other researchers.
- Reinvest 20% of any profits it makes in the least developed countries in hospitals, clinics and staff.
- Invite scientists from other companies, NGOs or governments to join the hunt for tropical disease treatments at its dedicated institute at Tres Cantos, Spain.
The extent of the changes Witty is setting in train is likely to stun drug company critics and other pharmaceutical companies. He said,
We work like crazy to come up with the next great medicine, knowing that it’s likely to get used an awful lot in developed countries, but we could do something for developing countries. Are we working as hard on that? I want to be able to say yes we are, and that’s what this is all about – trying to make sure we are even-handed in terms of our efforts to find solutions not just for developed but for developing countries.
Witty accepts that his stance may not win him friends in other drug companies, but he is inviting them to join him in an attempt to make a significant difference to the health of people in poor countries – while still finding a way to justify it to the shareholders.
I think the shareholders understand this and it’s my job to make sure I can explain it. I think we can. I think it’s absolutely the kind of thing large global companies need to be demonstrating, that they’ve got a more balanced view of the world than short-term returns.