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Wealthy governments trying to help develop drugs for poor counties have been slow to recognise the potential for public-private partnerships, according to the UK-based Pharmaceutical R&D Policy Group (PRPG).

Since May 2004, the PRPG has been assessing different ways of funding drug development for 'neglected diseases' — such as malaria and sleeping sickness — that affect many people in poor countries but receive little attention from the global research community.

The group's director Mary Moran says the evaluation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, the United Kingdom plans to use its forthcoming presidency of the 'G8' group of industrialised nations to promote drug development for developing countries. To demonstrate this, it recently announced plans to make advance purchases of malaria and AIDS vaccines (see Britain to create market for AIDS and malaria vaccines).

"Governments need solid evidence on which to make judgments about which approaches to back," she adds.

Moran shared PRPG's initial findings last week (8 December) in an email-based discussion forum hosted by the World Health Organization's Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health.

The study shows that two-thirds of projects developing drugs for neglected diseases involve public-private collaborations. Most of the remainder are undertaken by pharmaceutical companies as profit-driven projects, which are often more expensive.

This, said Moran in the discussion forum, means "governments may be unwittingly steering companies away from low-cost partnerships and into a higher-cost commercial model although this low-cost model may offer opportunities for cheap, smart solutions". 

Moran told SciDev.Net that despite an increase in public-private collaboration in drug development for neglected diseases since 2000, incentives from governments such as the United Kingdom's still focus predominantly on purely commercial research.

There is little information on how cost-effective existing approaches and incentives are and some ineffective systems have been in place for decades, says Moran.

For instance, in 1983 the United States adopted legislation giving pharmaceutical companies financial incentives to develop 'orphan' drugs for rare diseases. Despite successful drug development for diseases affecting few people in rich countries, the incentives had little impact on drug research for neglected diseases in poor countries. A similar law was enacted by the European Union in 2000.

"Some public-private partnerships are virtually pharmaceutical companies, developing their own drugs, whereas others take the form of funding agencies," says Antony Taubman, head of the traditional knowledge division at the World Intellectual Property Organization.

This means the way intellectual property rights are managed also varies from partnership to partnership.

Tauban says the public sector generally wants either to own drug patents or to be given guarantees that drugs will reach developing countries. Such guarantees could take the shape of low prices or free distribution in poor nations.

"Industry on the other hand seeks certainty and partnerships that are reasonably low risk," he says.

For instance, the multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline recently lobbied the UK government for a deal that would extend the duration of their patents in return for undertaking research into drugs for neglected diseases (see Drug giant pushes for patent reform 'to help poor').

Public-private partnerships can also reduce demands placed on large pharmaceutical companies to invest in drugs for developing countries for little financial return: instead, they create projects that benefit several parties.

Taubman explains that this can happen in 'pro bono' agreements. A pharmaceutical company recruited to develop a malaria vaccine, for example, might receive sufficient revenue from selling the vaccines to a significant, and potentially lucrative, 'travellers market' in the developed world, which would subsidise vaccines for the developing world.

Based at the London School of Economics, the PRPG project was set up with one year's funding from the Wellcome Trust in May 2004. Moran's team hopes their study will influence global health policies — including any discussed at next July's G8 summit in Scotland.

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