A way to make drugs for poor countries

Employees of Gabonese pharmaceutical factory Sogafam collect pills at a plant in Owendo, Gabon.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Nearly a million people die of malaria every year, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa. A public-private venture that includes $200 million from the Gates Foundation is working on a vaccine. It's about to do its final tests. And if the vaccine works, the collaboration that produced it could offer a viable business model for developing drugs for poorer countries. Megan Williams reports now from Gabon, in central Africa.


MEGAN WILLIAMS: Dr. Maxime Agnandji peers into a microscope at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital lab in Lamberene, Gabon.

The 35-year-old who grew up in the country heads the research unit here, as part of the biggest medical trial ever held in Africa. A malaria vaccine test involving 16,000 kids and 11 different research centers across the continent.

MAXIME AGNANJDI: Basically I want to stay here to develop my career here.

Agnanjdi is one of the principal investigators for the final test of the vaccine, called RTSS. So far, it's been shown to cut the rate of severe malarial infection by half. Agnanjdi says it's not only exciting to work on a solution to a mainly African problem, but on a project that's changing the face of medical research in Africa.

AGNANJDI: Since the 10 last years there is improvement in training, to control diseases. I've met many, many doctors from different countries, all are from Africa. Young researchers from Africa.

The Gates foundation decided to invest in the malaria vaccine research after scientists at the drug company Glaxo-Smith-Kline showed it had real potential. But for big drug companies vaccines in Africa just aren't profitable. People are too poor to pay. Without the Gates funding, the malaria vaccine wouldn't have been developed.

Rip Ballou of the Gates Foundation has been part of the quest for a malaria vaccine for more than two decades.

RIP BALLOU: If you go back 20 years, most research being done in Africa was being done by Europeans and Americans who came here because there's all these disease challenges, fascinating problems. But there was no resources coming from the African host nations.

Unlike most drug trials in Africa, the bulk of the funding has been invested right here, in Africa. By building first-rate hospitals and labs and upgrading facilities and equipment to Western standards. And, of course, developing motivated scientists like DR. Maxime Agnandji.

BALLOU: You know, I think one of great things that's happened with this program over the last several years is that we've identified a whole cadre of really talented African investigators to do this.

If this last trial of the RTSS vaccine proves effective, then in a few years comes the next hurdle, making it affordable to the people who so desperately need it. Glaxo-Smith-Kline is contractually obliged by the Gates Foundation to set a ceiling on the price, but it can also make a profit. Joe Cohen is the Glaxo-Smith-Kline scientist who invented the vaccine. He insists low cost is a priority.

JOE COHEN: It makes sense. This malaria vaccine, in contrast to many other vaccines, is exclusively meant for African children. There is no other market for it. It would be crazy for us after 25 years of work on malaria vaccine to do anything that would prevent this vaccine from being accessible and to see this vaccine just sitting on a shelf.

In Lamberene, Gabon, I'm Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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