Pharmaceutical News: No proof of drug industry sway on WHO in pandemic

No proof of drug industry sway on WHO in pandemic: report

Independent experts who examined the World Health Organisation’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic said on Thursday they had found no evidence of drug industry influence on the U.N. agency’s decision-making in the crisis.

But in a draft report made public, the panel said WHO had failed to recognize and manage conflicts of interest among some experts on its advisory Emergency Committee who had disclosed their ties to pharmaceutical companies.

The world remains “ill-prepared” to face a severe influenza pandemic or similar public health emergency, the experts added.

The United Nations agency announced in June 2009 that the newly-emerged H1N1 swine flu virus was causing the world’s first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years. It declared the pandemic over in August 2010, saying that the global outbreak had turned out to be much less severe than was feared.

“WHO performed well in many ways during the pandemic and confronted systemic difficulties and demonstrated some shortcomings,” the panel said in a 33-page report. “The Committee found no evidence of malfeasance.”

“As far as the Review Committee can determine, no critic of WHO has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making,” it added.

Critics who have suggested ‘invisible commercial influences’ may account for WHO’s actions ignored the agency’s core public health values to prevent disease and save lives, according to the panel headed by American flu expert Dr. Harvey Fineberg.

The Review Committee, composed of 27 experts, holds its last meeting in Geneva on March 28-30 to finalize its report which is to be submitted to WHO’s annual ministerial meeting in May.

The panel criticised the WHO’s lack of a consistent and measurable description for judging a pandemic’s severity which had created confusion. It suggested a scale of three phases rather than the current six-phase scale which is under revision.

WHO bureaucracy had also prevented a timely distribution of donated vaccines in poor countries during the pandemic, it said.

GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis are among major producers of influenza vaccines.

“The world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public health emergency,” it said, citing the risk of massive disruption, suffering and loss of life.

Rapper-Backed Law Easing Overseas Drug Sales Approved By Canada Lawmakers

Canadian lawmakers approved a bill aiming to ease the process that lets generic drug manufacturers produce patented medicines for export to poor nations at cheaper prices in a move the pharmaceutical industry says could undermine intellectual property rights.

The legislation amends Canada’s so-called “access-to- medicines” law, which was enacted in 2004 and meant to make it easier for generic drug producers to get licenses to produce patent-protected drugs for export. The bill, introduced by an opposition lawmaker from the New Democratic Party, has passed the House of Commons and still must be approved by the Conservative-controlled Senate before it can become law.

The measure is “a significant step to save lives” from treatable diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS, said New Democrat lawmaker Paul Dewar in a statement after the vote yesterday. “There is no reason for the Senate to delay the passage of this bill.”

A coalition including former Canadian ambassador to the U.N. Stephen Lewis and Canadian rapper K’Naan pushed for the bill’s passage. Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, the association that represents the industry in Canada and counts Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and Novartis AG (NVS) among its members, says the it risks fueling black-market sales, encouraging production of counterfeit products and removes “safeguards” on intellectual property.

The bill opens “the doors to export of a wider range of medications to developed countries that do not have a humanitarian crisis,” Russell Williams, president of the association, known as Rx&D, said in an e-mailed statement.
Already Working

Williams said the industry is already working with governments and non-government agencies to provide medicines at no cost or a non-profit basis in poor nations.

The legislation was supported primarily by opposition lawmakers, while most legislators from the governing Conservatives opposed it.

“I don’t think this bill is helpful,” Industry Minister Tony Clement told reporters, adding there is a “lot to go” before the legislation would be signed into law.

Clement said he’s concerned the bill will serve the “commercial” interests of generic companies, and not deal with the humanitarian issues. Clement also said he doesn’t think Canadian companies can produce generic drugs cheaply enough for the legislation to be effective.

Apotex Inc., a Canadian generic pharmaceutical company that is the only manufacturer to have sought a license to export drugs to poor countries under the current law, released a March 8 statement backing the proposed changes.

“Apotex is the only company to have attempted to work through this complex legislation and it took four long years to send the first shipment of medicines via this cumbersome process,” the company said in the statement.

What Technology Can Learn from Big Pharma

With rapid change on the Web amid the information revolution sparked by the Internet, it’s easy for the technology industry to think it’s unique because it constantly breaks new ground and does things nobody has done. But other sorts of businesses have already undergone some of the same radical shifts, with no less a stake in the future.

Take health care, for instance. We often think of it as a huge, lumbering beast, but in the past 200 years medicine has undergone a series of revolutions that are at least equal to those we see in technology and information.

Modern chemistry and biology were only just beginning to stir in the 19th century. In 1967, however, Dr, Christiaan Barnard started transplanting hearts.And it wasn’t until the 1950s that James D.Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA. Less than 50 years later, the first draft of the human genome was produced. If that’s not rapid, world-shattering change, what is?

Big Pharma has faced other challenges that the Web industry is only starting to comprehend. Drugs can take years to design, test, and manufacture. Accordingly, spending to search and develop pharmaceuticals is very high overall: According to the European Union (PDF), five of the world’s top 10 companies in R&D spending are in drugs or biotechnology. (Among traditional technology companies, only Microsoft, Nokia, and Samsung feature in the list.) The expenditure amounts to a far greater proportion of total turnover—Pfizer spends around one seventh of revenues on research, while Apple spends about a dollar on R&D for every 13 it brings in.
Generic Windows?

And where the planet’s electronics giants spend billions to fight piracy and patent infringement, pharmaceutical companies are rapidly adjusting to the fact that they receive only 12 years before patent protection ends and other companies can introduce generic drugs. Imagine a situation in which Windows 98 were already old enough to be forcibly open-sourced today for an idea of how disruptive that might be.

So what does the pharmaceutical industry have to teach us?

First, be careful. Your property and ideas won’t be proprietary for long.

Second, while new discoveries are important, revolutions can be reliably predicted most of the time. From the outside, Barnard’s transplants were a radical shift in surgery. From inside the profession, it was an obvious step after previous organ transplants.

Third, the way money is spent will inevitably change. It’s already happening, an issue addressed in the latest VC Bulletin from Go4Venture, a London-based advisory group for European entrepreneurs and investors.(You can sign up to receive the monthly here.) The latest dispatch outlines the state of dealmaking in Europe (more frequent but less valuable, as reflected in figures we wrote about last month) and points out that Europe’s technology-financing system is undergoing a significant shift:

There is a major structural change in European venture capital financing where corporates will play a more prominent role going forward. Corporates are facing a lasting ex-growth market environment (courtesy of debt-laden Western economies) and realize that internal R&D is rather expensive and just cannot cover the whole front of innovation. For corporates, investing in startups has the additional advantage of encouraging a more entrepreneurial culture inside and creating a stream of acquisition opportunities. Pharma has been there before, in an early move precipitated by proprietary drugs coming off patent, and we are now seeing the pharma model spreading to other IT-driven sectors.

Spending more of the R&D budget on other companies doesn’t just mean acquisition, although the startup world is familiar with a process that’s clearly the most common option. Just yesterday, Google spent $60 million on the slightly odd purchase of British price-comparison website BeatThatQuote.It could also mean a greater measure of early investment in small companies, such as the $100,000 Microsoft is putting into Moscow-based anti-piracy startup Pirate Pay.

What it ultimately means is faster growth in the number of deals, along with opportunities for innovative startups and smart entrepreneurs. Paired with the aggressive, high-valuation investment strategy of a company such as Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies, it seems likely that we’ll see things explode in Europe and elsewhere over the next year or two.

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