AstroZeneca calls for  more ‘trust’ in its ‘What science can do’ lecture   

Pascal Soriot, CEO AstraZeneca, Kate Pretty 2nd Annual Lecture: Homerton College.  Thursday 8th March 2018   The Cambridge Life science cluster at a pivot point.

I have many long-standing connections to Homerton College in Cambridge so I decided to go along to this lecture. Pascal Soriot described how AZ had fought off the takeover by Pfizer, how open and transparent the company is, why it had relocated to Cambridge and the opportunities this opened up for the company, Cambridge jobs and human health.  He made AZ appear like the very best benefactor. Towards the end of his presentation he proposed that AZ should have access to NHS data and that the best way forward is through partnerships and an atmosphere of ‘trust’.

I waited to see if anyone else was worried, but I couldn’t sense any discomfort from the questions being asked.  I decided to ask for the microphone. I explained that as someone who is alive today because of effective cancer drugs, I was not in the business of stopping innovation or holding back ‘what science can do’ for human health and the public good.  However, PS had lost me with his call for more ‘trust’.  AZ, is after all the world’s a pharmaceutical corporation [the world’s 14th biggest one with a £22 billion turnover] with  a legal duty to maximise profits for its shareholders. Is it really wise to trust that it will, or indeed can, prioritise the public good above its bottom line?

I mentioned how the UK, a key player in global health, has been pushing WHO to work in partnership with corporations, including on tackling the global threat of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) and neglected diseases. My understanding is that AMR is the result of weak state structures that have allowed the careless use of medication (including in animal husbandry), uncontrolled promotion by the pharmaceutical industry and the sale of antibiotics over the counter.  There is global consensus among health advocates that unless we take fast and coordinated action, common infections and minor injuries – the kinds of things we have been able to treat for decades – will emerge as killers once more.

So surely what’s needed is better and stronger regulation, not ‘partnerships’ built on the basis  ‘trust’  and which inevitably lead to shared governance and decision making?

Pascal Soriot responded saying that he agreed, that people should not be naive and should go into collaborations with their eyes are wide open and with checks and balances. OK, but I was left wondering what this would  actually mean in practice. How can one really be continually checking the global activities of such a huge corporation (as one would need to do) while at the same time trusting that all is well?   And do profit-making corporations really have the monopoly on innovative ideas?

Last year’s World Health Assembly (May 2017)

I attended several side events during the 2017 World Health Assembly. Two were about medicine pricing and the problem of neglected diseases.   Delinking Research and Development (R&D) from product pricing was organised by OXFAM and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)(1).

The speakers at the OXFAM meeting (2) explained that new medicines are expensive, not because of physics, chemistry or biology, but because of policies. Currently, the incentives to invest in Research and Development (R&D) revolve around patents, data exclusivity and monopolies. These allow pharmaceutical developers to charge high prices that result in rationing, unnecessary pain and deaths, especially in poorly resourced nations. The meeting proposed that governments could solve these problems by:

  • partially or wholly delinking product prices from R&D costs.
  • regulating or eliminating monopolies
  • creating legal pathways to ensure treatments are affordable and widely available.
  • granting  compulsory licences.
  • creating innovation funds that would allow countries to lower drug prices with no adverse impact on R&D.
Speakers gave several examples of how quickly companies  recoup their research costs.  James Love, director of KEI, said Roche got a large profit from the sale of TDM1. “After you get the first US$67 billion, you think it might be appropriate to say let’s make the drug available for cheap now, let’s be a good sports,”
Ellen ‘t Hoen from Medicines Law & Policy/Global Health Unit – University Medical Center Groningen also explained the wide difference between the cost of production and market price, showing “there is enormous” space for change, and those medicines can be made more available and much more affordable. For example, she said, imatinib, a cancer drug, has a cost of production between US$119-159, and a market price between US$30,000 and US$100,000 per year.

CLICK HERE for further excerpts from the meeting: Cancer Drugs: Innovation ‘Blackmail’ Leads To Unaffordable Prices, Delinkage Needed, Speakers Say

Another was organised by CEPI, a Public Private Partnership. (3) This was very different, placing the pharmaceutical industry firmly in the role of benefactors.  I asked why Merck, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK), PaxVax, and the World Economic Forum were allowed to sit on CEPI’s governing body and whether this was considered a risk.  Joanne Liu, of Medicine san Frontieres agreed that this was a tricky issue that MSF is watching, but other than that I didn’t really get an adequate answer.  Jon Pender of GSK asked me later why I had to complain yet again, even when the companies are doing something good


(1) Wednesday 24th May 18:00–19:30  Addressing access barriers and affordability challenges for cancer drugs. Organized by OXFAM , Knowledge Ecology International and Stichting Health Action International.   CLICK HERE  for KEI report.

(2) Panelists at the OXFAM meeting: Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota, Amb. Dep. Permanent Rep. of Brazil to the UN in Geneva; Manon Ress, Founder and Acting Director. Union for Affordable Cancer Treatment (UACT); Catherine Tomlinson, Cancer Alliance, South Africa; Ellen ‘t Hoen, Medicines Law & Policy/Global Health Unit – Univ. Medical Center GroningenJames Love, Director, Knowledge Ecology InternationalPeter Beyer, Senior Adviser, Department of Essential Medicines and Health Products, WHOPanel moderator: Tido von Schoen-Angerer, MD, MPH

(3) CEPI Monday 22nd May 17.45, Development of new technologies to prevent future health crises: the role of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Organized by the delegations of Germany, India, Japan, Norway, Rwanda and the United States of America.

Other side events at last year’s  WHA (May 2017)

Responding to the Challenge of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR): perspectives of civil society, intergovernmental organizations and developing countries. Organized by Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), Médecins Sans Frontières International (MSF), Medicus Mundi International (International Organization for Cooperation in Health Care) and Stichting Health Action International.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.