Wednesday, August 06, 2008

An HIV Vaccine and Big Pharma

Wow, 22,000 AIDS scientists, operatives and activists are gathering in Mexico to celebrate their disease. Well, good on them, of all the jobs that they could have chosen, AIDS is not an entirely worthless kinda thing, and yet, ain't it odd the role that big pharma plays in it all? Many, if not most AIDS NGOs are to a significant extent (or entirely) funded by big pharma. All sorts of panelists are flown in by big pharma to speak. Scientists' research more often than not is funded by big pharma. You might say that that's bothersome, but not such a big deal, given that big pharma and the activists have a lot in common these days. Initially big pharma was hated because it priced drugs out of many peoples' research, today it offers cheaper drugs that in turn are guaranteed huge sales thru programmes such as PEPFAR. Still, about 70%of people who could clinically benefit from AIDS medicines have no affordable and reliable access. It is entirely unclear whether the roll-out of medicines in developing countries will be sustainable over generations to come. In a way this l ooks like a win-win situation for big pharma, ever more people get on their medicines, many of them in the global south, funded by taxpayers in Western countries. All is well then, or isn't it? Well, it only looks like it.

There is one area where big pharmas investment has been negligible: HIV vaccine and microbicide research. There's no big surprise in that. You can't seriously expect these companies to produce an HIV vaccine, given that they know full-well that that would rob them of millions of customers requiring life-long care. No way they will ever meaningfully contribute to HIV vaccine development. It's a bit like asking OPEC to invent an alternative to oil for us . And so it's left to the haphazard activities of the Global Fund, the two Bill's and their friends and other such groups. We neither have a serious concerted global effort funded by the governments of the world (our representatives...) nor by big pharma.

No wonder the participants of the international AIDS travel circus can look forward to many more such events to come. Courtesy of government and industry inaction we won't be seeing a vaccine any time soon. Even better, with treatment activists mostly in the backpocket of international organizations and funded to a large extent by industry, don't expect too much pressure from them either. Hey, and while I'm at it, the same holds true for plenty of other ailments that could be prevented efficiently if a vaccine was around. Serious rethinking is required as far as drug R&D financing is concerned.

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