A New Leaf: GSK Breaks from the Big Pharma Ranks by Sharing Malaria Data

Blog contributor: Jessica M. Keralis

International pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced last Wednesday that the company would release information on over 13,000 malaria drug candidates into the public domain.1,2 The company will also create an “open lab” where independent researchers can use GSK facilities and expertise for their own research projects.  The company’s CEO, Andrew Witty, said in a speech in New York that drug companies have to balance social responsibility with the need to make a profit in order to “earn the trust of society.” 1,3

While such a move is certainly laudable, and has been cautiously praised by organizations such as Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières, it is a small step against the typical business flow of Big Pharma.  When Witty announced his plan at Harvard last year to put potential drugs for neglected diseases into a “patent pool” for other scientists to investigate, none of the other major drug companies followed suit. 2, 3 GSK has only recently turned over this “new leaf”: only a few years ago, the company was directly targeted by Oxfam’s “Cut the Cost” campaign criticizing the higher prices of medicines charged by pharmaceutical corporations in developing countries.4 The pharmaceutical industry came under fire in 2001 when 39 pharmaceutical companies (GSK included) tried to prevent the South African government from importing generic versions of patented drugs.5 It appears, however, that GSK has been taking steps in the right direction.  Oxfam spokesperson Rohit Malpani said that “Big Pharma seems to be realizing slowly that poor people in developing countries face huge and different barriers to good health, and so…the industry must change its existing “strong patents, high cost” way of doing business.”6

GSK’s recent moves are certainly encouraging.  However, it will still take a lot of work for such steps to bear any real fruit.  Drug discovery is a long and expensive process, so organizations that participate in GSK’s “open lab” initiative will need to figure out how to carry their projects forward after their time in the lab is over. 2 Professor Peter Winstanley of the Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said that while there’s a slight possibility that we may have new drugs from this in the next five years, it is more likely to happen over the next 10 to 20 years, and that will take a lot of work, some luck, and a lot of money.” 1

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