Putting health before profits

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It’s not as simple as that, but the math is pretty stark. GlaxoSmithKline, which spent decades and more than $400 million developing a meningitis vaccine, expects to sell it only in Africa, and at a price that will never cover the cost of development.

As the story notes, this is not an entirely selfless act. Some of it is PR, attempting to repair the damage done by a lawsuit over AIDS drugs a few years back. Some of it is marketing, establishing a presence in markets where GSK may hope to sell other drugs down the road.

Nor is it a solution to finding cures for “neglected” diseases — illnesses that occur solely in the developing world, and thus have no rich-nation market that can be charged higher prices to pay for the development costs. Companies cannot be expected to routinely write off $400 million for the global good.

But it is a sign that pharmaceutical companies are waking up to the complex world they operate in, and that profit motive is not the only valid consideration for their research efforts. GSK is doing an extraordinary thing, and millions of lives will likely be saved because of it. Good for them.