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The drug company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has announced plans for radical changes in the way it approaches neglected tropical diseases, a move that has caused intense debate.

The drug company says it will make patents for some of its drugs and manufacturing processes freely available in a "patent pool" from which they can be licensed at no cost. It is hoped the move will boost research into neglected diseases.

Andrew Witty, the company's chief executive has also offered GSK's neglected diseases research facility in Spain to interested researchers, companies and governments to "foster a global public–private network".

The company will also cut the prices of its medicines in the world's 50 least developed countries to a maximum of 25 per cent of the price paid in the richest countries.

GSK's decisions are a dramatic shift from just a decade ago, when it joined other drug companies in suing the South African government to prevent it from manufacturing cheap HIV drugs, says an article in Nature

Neglected disease campaigners welcomed the moves as a "fantastic step forward". But critics warn that the patent pool will only be successful if quality patents are included. Patents relating to HIV, for example, are to be excluded because there is enough research available in this area already, according to GSK.

Some drug companies have objected that Witty's statements are too vague and have challenged the idea that intellectual property hampers access to medicines.

There are concerns that the many poor people who live in middle-income countries will not benefit from the price reductions. Even in the least developed countries, says the article, history has shown that medicines might not be affordable until their prices decrease by 99 per cent.