GlaxoSmithKline’s chief medical officer Murray Stewart spoke with Allan Olingo about the firm’s research and development strategy in the region
Does GSK have any medicine that is specifically for East Africa?
We have two. One is a new Chlorhexidine gel for the prevention of umbilical cord infections in newborn babies, which was developed in partnership with Save the Children for this region. The second is the malaria vaccine, which we have developed in conjunction with local research scientists and organisations in Kenya and Tanzania.
The regional market is price-sensitive when it comes to medicine. What is GSK’s strategy to ensure its products are affordable?
Having trained healthcare professionals who provide the right medicine achieves nothing if economic conditions mean that people cannot afford the medicines they need.
GSK uses tiered pricing, and a graduated approach to patents and intellectual property, to widen access to the world’s poorest countries. We cap the cost of patented medicines and vaccines in Least Developed Countries at a ceiling of 25 per cent of an average European price. We also have a tiered pricing model where countries pay for medicines based on their gross national income per capita.
Also, in Least Developed and Low Income countries, we will not file for patent protection; in Lower Middle Income countries, we will seek to grant licences to generic manufacturers to supply versions of GSK medicines.
We have also outlined our intent to commit future oncology products to patent pooling and make information about our patent portfolio freely available.
Are there any examples and what has been the impact?
Since 2012, we have supplied nearly 89 million doses of our Rotarix vaccine to 33 countries, in order to combat rotavirus gastroenteritis — a common cause of diarrhoea and childhood mortality.
When it comes to patents and IP, we have granted licences to generic companies in Kenya to develop critical medicine such as Aurobindo for Dolutegravir — a drug approved for the treatment of the HIV infection.
Generic drugs from countries like India have posed a problem for global firms like GSK, but their prices resonate with the African market. What’s your take on this?
We work with manufacturers of generic medicine to agree on licences that allow the production of generic versions of certain medicines such as those on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines.
This approach ensures that patients have access to the medicines they need regardless of the manufacturer, or their ability to pay.
What kind of investment has GSK made in East Africa to ensure better diagnosis and treatment?
Globally, we reinvest 20 per cent of our profits to train healthcare professionals to make correct diagnoses and to provide patients with the right medicine. In Kenya, this training is provided in partnership with Amref, as part of our $73 million programme to train more than 9,000 health workers in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.
Additionally, we have launched the Asthma Care Improvement Project, which seeks to use mobile phone and e-learning platforms to deliver asthma care education to frontline healthcare workers. Through the project, healthcare workers are gaining skills in asthma diagnosis and treatment, model asthma care clinics are being kitted with the correct equipment and low cost medication is being made available to asthma patients. The training is underway in Kenya.
Has GSK invested in medical research in the region?
GSK invests significantly in this vital area. One of the most important keys to tackling Africa’s existing and emerging healthcare issues lies in driving more research and development by scientists on the continent.
McKinsey published a report titled Closing the R&D gap in African healthcare, which showed that African countries producing the largest number of biomedical research publications generated 15-150 times fewer research articles than developed countries. In addition they had 1-8 times fewer research publications than non-African developing countries.
How is your investment targeted?
GSK directly supports research in the region through its Non-Communicable Disease Open Lab, which enables African scientists to work with us on research that will go towards treating a range of health conditions.
The Open Lab is a $32 million investment by GSK in Africa and is part of our commitment to increase research and development on the continent. We recently announced our third call for proposals and our goal is to receive and identify high quality research proposals from African scientists. After evaluation, selected proposals will receive funding of up to $125,000 each.
We also provide open sourcing of research findings, which makes the latest knowledge freely available to Africa’s scientific community.
Our investment in R&D is the foundation of our mission to develop medicines that meet some of the unique needs we see across Africa such as medicine formulation, packet size, affordability and the capability to be stored and handled safely in different conditions.
Where does GSK stand on health reforms in the region and how does it ensure that its strategies are patient-focused?
GSK is driven by the needs of patients and we take a holistic approach to providing healthcare in the region. We invest time and funds in healthcare ecosystems that include a wide range of partners and interventions.