A Disease-Fighting UN Backed by Big Pharma

A representative of big pharma calls for a UN-like compact to fight antibiotic resistance diseases in the developing world.



Tuberculosis (TB) has been making headlines on Fast Company lately, largely because the fight to prevent and treat the disease is an ongoing public health crisis, and one key ingredient to that battle is resistance to antibiotics. Scientists have been looking for ways to overcome the resistance for years, but this work has largely fallen on the public sector, and big pharma companies have drawn massive criticism for their approach to
selling and distributing life-saving drugs and vaccines in the
developing world.

But a surprising turn took place at recent conference in Sweden: Richard Bergström of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA)
called for a UN-like
compact making all stakeholders responsible. A big pharma guy wants
UN-like cooperation? This could be interesting.

“There is an emerging consensus on the need for concerted action
involving the private sector. But there is a major paradox: Industry
funds its investments in R&D by selling products at a relatively
high price during a limited patent life. Patents are nominally 20 years,
but once all the studies and paperwork are done, usually 10-12 years
remain. Investment decisions are based on the cash-flow that can be
generated once the product is on the market. And the price is set to
reflect the value of the product to society, including affordability and
willingness to pay. This we call value-based pricing,” said Bergström.

“A global compact (mirrored on the UN program for good governance and sustainable development) could focus on the agreed and gradual introduction–and responsible marketing and use of new agents. This includes the need for differential pricing to ensure equitable access for all patients in need. The learnings from the HIV field must be harnessed in this field. It is not reasonable that the least developed countries in the world pay as much as those with the highest income. A global compact would require that not only industry but also governments, physicians and pharmacists join forces to preserve the new medicines that our children and grandchildren need,” he said.

Representing the private sector, some may read his statements as a push-on to other sectors, namely governments and hospitals. But his comments indicate otherwise. “Building on the need for change, new solutions should look to the future and aim for a global compact among all stakeholders to ensure that new medicines will not be introduced and used the way they were in the past,” said Bergstrom.


Mapping the spread of disease in developing countries is essential, as is curbing their use, and the private sector has a critical, yet complicated, role to play. We’ll just have to wait and see if anything significant comes out of such talk, or the conference for that matter. Here’s hoping.

[Image via NASA Images]

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.