Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Vis Navaratnam [Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Vis Navaratnam [Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative]

Article excerpt

DEVELOPING new medications for the world's most neglected diseases. Challenging pharmaceutical companies and governments to treat health as a human right. These pursuits - just some of those occupying Professor Vis Navaratnam - are not, he believes, the work of an activist.

Rather, as an expert in addiction and infectious diseases at the University of Science, Malaysia, Professor Navaratnam (Vis or Nava to his colleagues) describes himself as conservative. His personal mission, he says, is a push for social medicine. `I don't subscribe to the aid mentality. If you make drugs to meet need, and make them affordable, you make them accessible.'

As part of that push, he and his colleagues at Medecins Sans Frontieres are setting up the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi): a public-interest company that will initiate research and development of the types of drugs presently ignored by the world's largest pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Only 10 per cent of global health-research money is presently devoted to conditions that account for 90 per cent of the global disease burden. Yet most diseases killing more than 12 million people a year are preventable or treatable. Leishmaniasis (a skin disease caused by a parasite) is presently the most neglected. An estimated half-a-million people will be killed by it unless they are treated. Nevertheless, of the money spent on researching cures for this disease, more is presently spent on strains that kill dogs in the North than kill people in the South.

Nava explains that this is because the purchasing power of people in the Minority World rather than the pressing needs of the Majority World presently defines the drug-research priorities of the world's leading pharmaceutical manufacturers (`Big Pharma'). `At a conference in 2000, Big Pharma got up and said: "Look, we intend to put our efforts into cancer, heart disease and diabetes because that's where our clientele is. We will help you, but it's not a priority.'"

Warm and witty, Nava is careful and detailed when he starts to explain the DNDi project. `We are not going to have multi-storeyed offices and we are not going to have labs. We are not going to pay multinational salaries.' What Nava and his colleagues are building is a `virtual' pharmaceutical company: a management company that will co-ordinate projects in a way that will improve the capacity of countries in the South to manufacture and distribute drugs themselves.

`If you look at individual countries, then they might not have the capacity, but if you network them and combine their resources, they will. …

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