WHO pressures Big Pharma to donate more drugs for tropical diseases

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

WHO pressures Big Pharma to donate more drugs for tropical diseases

Related tags Infectious disease Pharmacology

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged pharma companies to help combat neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) via increased drug donations.

The Swiss organization made the request last week, explaining that while companies like Sanofi, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline are major donors, further industry assistance is needed.

“There is no group of diseases that is so intimately linked to poverty,”​ said Dr. Dirk Engles, director of the WHO’s department of control of neglected tropical diseases, adding that  “The medicines exist…they are too expensive and (neither) people nor countries have the ability to pay.”

“A number of companies have accompanied us in the scaling up by making more medicines available. Is that enough? No there are still diseases that are neglected and we still have problems with access to basic medicine” ​said Engles.

Pharma companies neglect certain diseases for economic reasons according to Gates Foundation funded advocacy group Access to Medicine Foundation (ATM), which told us there is little commercial incentive for drug companies to develop or donate NTD treatments. 

The organization told us “...they ​(NTDs) are endemic in resource-poor settings. Without a stable market to enter, there is little incentive for companies to dedicate resources to develop new or adapted products for NTDs.”


Since entering a partnership with the WHO in 2001, Sanofi donated medicines to treat sleeping sickness. Sanofi advises that manufacturing capacity and supply sustainability be considered prior to committing to a donor project.

“The manufacturing capacity for this partnership was considered at the time of the initiation,” ​said Sanofi, which does not anticipate a long term sustainability of supply. “The decision for donation is based on the fact that the disease is on track for elimination as a public health problem.”

Neglected Tropical Diseases

NTDs are diseases present in tropical and subtropical conditions in 149 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Affected populations include those living in poverty, lacking in sanitation and in contact with infectious agents and animals.

One billion people are treated per year for one of 18 NTDs, including dengue, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and sleeping sickness.  

Tax offsets

Tax offsets may be one way of encouraging drug donations.

While there is no tax offset on drug donation at a global level, drug manufacturers may be eligible for tax benefits on a local basis. “It varies from country to country” ​Sanofi told In-PharmaTechnologist. “The tax offset will depend on local regulatory rules.”

ATM said that other incentives for drug companies to donate medicines can relate to company reputation, and opportunities to increase philanthropic and market building activities.

Other considerations may relate to company policies on drug donation. Sanofi’s Global Policy on Donation of Medicines and vaccines for Humanitarian purposes dictate that donation be limited to exceptional situations, in particular crises and emergency cases, underserved populations or diseases for which there is no market.  

Drug development

Merck KGaA is also working to combat NTDs, and has announced it is currently developing a children’s formula of its praziquantel tablets to treat scistosomiasis, a parasitic worm disease. The disease is responsible for 280,000 deaths per year in Africa. Merck hopes to have the formula market-ready by 2019. 

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