Tropical Diseases Ignored, Report Says: Little profit potential equals little research

October 9, 2001

Drug makers and wealthy governments aren't doing enough to develop new medicines to combat several serious diseases that are prevalent almost exclusively in poor countries, according to a new report.

Although drug makers have cranked out numerous medications to treat cardiovascular disease, for example, medications for several tropical illnesses aren't being considered because the return on investment is insufficient, according to a report issued by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Working Group.

"That's the bottom line. It's a market failure," said Dyann Wirth, a professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health and a member of the group that issued the report, titled "Fatal Imbalance."

Among overlooked diseases the report cites are sleeping sickness, which afflicts an estimated 500,000 people in Africa; Chagas disease, an inflammation of the lymph nodes caused by a rare parasite; and leishmaniasis, which is spread by fly bites.

Taken together, a few million people in Africa, Latin America and India suffer from these infectious diseases, according to Anne-Valerie Kaninda, a medical adviser at Doctors Without Borders, which helped prepare the study.

Of 11 big drug makers that responded to a survey, eight spent "nothing at all" over the past year on these illnesses.

A spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry's trade group, said drug makers participate in a variety of so-called public-private partnerships to combat infectious diseases.

These were created over the past two years with public and philanthropic funds in order to attract industry expertise. Among them is the Medicines for Malaria Venture, the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development and the Global AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

"There are many diseases that are competing for research dollars around the world," Mark Grayson, the trade group spokesman, said. "Not a day goes by that someone is not lobbying for more research into a particular disease."

In releasing the report, the working group is hoping to spur the creation of similar partnerships to tackle tropical diseases.

Unlike malaria, AIDS or tuberculosis, however, these illnesses don't offer drug makers the same kind of profit potential.

"The difference here is that we view this as a public responsibility, because there won't be the same chance for a return with these diseases," Wirth said. "There's a need for a constant subsidy from governments. But to do that, we need a new paradigm and to raise awareness."