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A global health fund, set up to tap Japan's capacity for innovation and technology, unveiled a historic agreement yesterday (30 May) to screen drug compound libraries in the hope of identifying treatments for diseases that affect the world's most vulnerable communities.

The Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund will fund the screening of drug libraries belonging to five Japanese pharmaceutical companies.
It will do so in collaboration with three non-profit product development partnerships (PDPs) — the TB Alliance, the Medicines for Malaria Venture, and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative — which will each bring their specialist expertise and facilities to the table.

Mel Spiegelman, president and chief executive officer of the TB Alliance, tells SciDev.Net that this is the first time the TB Alliance has had such far-reaching access to Japanese drug libraries.  

"Doing screening for tuberculosis can be quite difficult because of the need for really specialised equipment and facilities, due to the infectiousness of the organism," he says. "But this is obviously something we do all the time: we will provide the access, expertise, manpower and agreements with screening facilities; the pharmaceutical companies will provide the libraries; and GHIT the funding." 

Japan's pharmaceutical industry is a global heavyweight in terms of products and patents, but its vast resources have yet to be tapped for the benefit of global health research, according to the director of the GHIT Fund, BT Slingsby.

The fund, launched last month (8 April) by the Japanese government in partnership with five pharmaceutical companies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to change this, by harnessing the capacity of Japanese innovation and technology.

With a potential five-year commitment totalling more than US$100 million, it plans to facilitate and fund partnerships in four areas: HIV/AIDS, malaria, neglected diseases and tuberculosis.

"The purpose of the fund is to create partnerships between Japanese and non-Japanese entities; to better contribute and utilise the capacities, technologies and innovations of Japan; and to find new vaccines, medicines and diagnostics," Slingsby tells SciDev.Net.

"It is the first time that this group of pharmaceutical companies are coming to the table … and the first time that two Japanese ministries [the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs] are coming together to fund global health research and development."

He adds that the Japanese government is looking to not only provide aid and money, but contribute technologies to international development and global health — a new direction that has, surprisingly, been galvanised by the economic slump.

"When there are limited resources, it is timely to look at opportunities that will provide greater return in terms of contribution," Slingsby says.
But he adds that pushing forward with an organisation involving so many players will not be straightforward. "The major issue is trying to find ways to speed things up and not get caught in months of contractual negotiation. It's a matter of dealing with different organisations, dealing with different cultures and entities: that's the beast of private–public partnerships. It's never smooth, but that's the fun part about it."

Both Slingsby and Spiegelman refute the suggestion that self-interest among the pharmaceutical companies will compromise the fund's operations. Slingsby says other strategies would provide much more return for them, that: "You could see the fund as corporate social responsibility [or] you could see it as companies becoming more engaged stakeholders on the global level."

Spiegelman says the TB Alliance's vast experience of working with pharmaceutical companies will also prevent commercial self-interest. 
"We have vast experience in dealing with private companies that engage in the global health space, and these experiences will be easily transferable to the GHIT Fund," he says.

Spiegelman concludes: "Off the top of my head, I don't think we have another partnership that so intimately pulls together the public–private sector like this geographically, and I'm optimistic that this is only the first step in a long-lasting and fruitful partnership".

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