The Health Impact Fund:a new tool in the flight against poverty?

6 Dec

If you were a world-class scientist working in any one of the globe’s wealthiest nations, what would you rather spend your time doing? Searching for cures for serious debilitating diseases? Or developing drugs to help people lose weight, fight the signs of aging and prevent hair loss.

It seems counter-intuitive – not to mention ludicrous — that educational institutions spend years turning out brilliant thinkers and that the pharmaceutical industry uses them to work on these unnecessary yet lucrative inventions. Yet that pretty much describes the world of Big Pharma: intense research and investment on drugs for our first-world problems, such as laziness and over-eating, while ignoring malaria, dengue fever and river blindness, just a few of the common and all-too-often untreated scourges of the Third World.

Yale professor Thomas Pogge has come up with an idea that could turn this picture around. The Health Impact Fund would allow Big Pharma one of two choices. Sell the way they normally do with patent protection, or register with the HIF and sell medicines at cost globally. The Fund, supported by international governments, banks and so on, would then make additional payments to those companies based on the health improvements brought about by their drugs. So the more effective their medicine in, say, reducing the overall consequences of 207 million people suffering from schistosomiasis, or 50 million from Dengue Fever, the more the company who came up with it will earn. This could actually make it more profitable to do research on drugs that kills hundreds of thousands than on something like botox.

In fact, sometimes such drugs are already  available, but simply out of the reach of the desperately poor. According to Pogge, who gave a fascinating lecture at the UNAM that I attended, at least one third of all deaths around the world are attributable to poverty, what he called “injustice in the existing social order.” The illnesses that kill that one third exist either only in poor nations, or else could be cured with cheap medicines like the simple procedure for curing diarrhea in children.

What’s more, India –the world’s largest source of cheap generic drugs — is now being hampered in the production of life-saving medicines sold around the developing world by the European Union. According to Doctors Without Borders, “As a part of free trade agreement negotiations with India, the EU is pushing for policies such as ‘data exclusivity,’ which would act to restrict even further generic producers’ ability to put more affordable generic medicines on the market.  If the EU wins, access to affordable generic versions of newer medicines needed to tackle HIV/AIDS will be severely compromised.”

So far, Pogge is finding a variety of responses to his idea. Some pharmaceutical companies, like Pfizer, don’t even want to know, he said, others are “cautiously supportive,” and still others, like GlaxoSmithKline, are very interested in the project. And he pointed out that working on  cures for these major diseases, towards the kind of breakthrough that could see them win a Nobel prize, is the dream of many medical researchers, not the money-making treatments for the often trivial rich-country ailments they spend their lives developing.  “Innovation,” he said, “should not be rewarded with a monopoly but by the results of that innovation.”

So while access to cheap medicines won’t end poverty, it can most certainly play a role in helping fight it. Maybe we can all do something by alerting our congressional reps and members of parliament to take on the project and persuade our governments to put money into the HIF.

For more information, check out

And to support Doctor Without Borders’ counterpunch to the attack on generic medicines, go to


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