AstraZeneca turns its back on ‘diseases of the poor’

Monitoring the electrical voltage of a heart cell in a petri dish

Source: The Times

31 Jan 2014
AstraZeneca has abandoned any scientific effort to search for new medicines to tackle many of the world’s deadliest diseases by shutting down its drug discovery work into neglected tropical diseases, tuberculosis and malaria.

In a move that drew outrage yesterday from charities working in the world’s poorest countries, Britain’s second-largest drugs company has decided that infectious diseases are “not a priority” as Pascal Soriot, its chief executive, cuts costs and scrambles to halt a slide in profits.

The company is closing a laboratory in Bangalore that was set up with investment of $40 million in 2003 and focuses on the often slow, costly fight against contagious illnesses. In an announcement released to Indian media only, the company disclosed that this was part of a group-wide change in policy: “The company will no longer carry out early stage research into neglected tropical diseases, TB and malaria.”

Under Mr Soriot, AstraZeneca has opted to specialise in drugs for cancer, heart disease, respiratory and inflammatory ailments — many of which are linked to lifestyles in wealthier countries. The company’s revenue has dropped by 18 per cent over two years, and its profit fell by a third to $7.7 billion in 2012, as older medicines lost patent protection. Its workforce has fallen from 67,000 to 50,000 since 2008.

Mr Soriot’s decision comes two years after the company joined 13 other pharmaceutical groups that signed up to a document known as the “London Declaration” that pledged a concerted effort to control, or stamp out, neglected tropical diseases, which are estimated to afflict a billion people globally.

The coalition behind the London Declaration said AstraZeneca had effectively dropped out of the effort, which was organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and backed by the British Government but was not legally binding. It aimed to eradicate ailments including Guinea worm disease, sleeping sickness and blinding trachoma by 2020.

Médecins Sans Frontières urged AstraZeneca to reconsider. Manica Balasegaram, director of the charity’s access to medicines campaign, said: “This highlights the fact that our R&D system is broken. It doesn’t serve public health needs and it doesn’t serve areas where there are gaps — where tablets and drugs are needed. It’s purely based on what will sell.”

Oxfam said AstraZeneca had “abandoned any interest in R&D for developing countries”. Mohga Kamal-Yanni, senior HIV and health policy adviser at the charity, said: “They’re basically saying ‘we’re going to focus our efforts on making big profit products’.”

A spokeswoman for AstraZeneca said the company would still make its library of chemical compounds available to independent researchers into neglected diseases, and that an existing clinical trial for a tuberculosis drug, AZD5847, would continue to be funded. However, she said: “Infectious diseases are not one of our core therapy areas. It’s one of those areas where we’ll be opportunity-driven.”

Drugs companies have contrasting attitudes towards neglected ailments. Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, has made the development of a vaccine against malaria one of his priorities and maintains a Spanish laboratory dedicated to disease in developing countries.

However, Bayer landed in hot water last week when Marijn Dekkers, the German company’s chief executive, described one of the company’s cancer drugs as a medicine “developed for Western patients who can afford it” and said it was not “for Indians”.

AstraZeneca has been cutting costs across the board: the company is in the process of shedding 700 jobs in Britain. The group last year set out plans to end scientific work at its biggest research site, Alderley Park in Cheshire, and to consolidate activity on a new campus in Cambridge. It is also shutting a lab at Brixham on the Devon coast.

Taking a heavy toll

  • 1.3m deaths every year from tuberculosis globally
  • 1,300 children aged under five who die every day from malaria
  • 149 countries where neglected tropical diseases are endemic

Source: World Health Organisation

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