From The Boston Globe
BYLINE: Steven Levingston
September 7, 1999, Tuesday, City Edition
SECTION: ECONOMY; Pg. E4
The Boston Globe
Steven Levingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Microsoft mogul Bill Gates recently pledged to spend $750 million over the next
five years to buy vaccines for millions of children in poor countries. In a
single breath, he ignited the hopes of despairing parents in underdeveloped
nations who can only watch helplessly as their sons and daughters die of
diseases that barely touch children lucky enough to be born in rich countries.
Consider this from the Economist: "Of children who die before their fifth
birthday, 98 percent are in the developing world. Of the millions who die
prematurely of tuberculosis, malaria, measles, tetanus, and whooping cough, all
but a few thousand live in the poor world."
Gates' generosity is aimed at creating a market for vaccines to entice the
behemoth pharmaceutical companies to deliver products to those who desperately
need them. If the drug makers could be convinced that a market does - or will -
exist, then perhaps they might be willing to develop remedies for diseases
common to poor nations instead of focusing their research almost exclusively on
rich-world afflictions. The World Health Organization says that $56 billion is
spent each year on health research, with less than 10 percent going to diseases
that afflict 90 percent of the world's population.
One scourge in particular, malaria, continues to plague the poor nations of the
world because those who produce vaccines see no possibility of a profit.
It seems there is no other motive for a drug company. Don't bother mentioning
the words "social conscience" to a pharmaceutical bigwig. He'll look at
a glare that's the visual equivalent of a lethal injection.
Not long ago, I was doing my usual volunteering on Sunday morning at the Soup
Kitchen for Corporate Executives Who Were Stupid Enough to Speak From the
when I bumped into an old acquaintance. He had, by diligence and degrees,
climbed the ladder at a well-known pharmaceutical giant. I couldn't imagine how
he had fallen on such hard times. As I ladled breakfast gruel into his tin
I could see he needed to talk. So I sat down with him.
"I had a crazy idea," he began, "so I wrote a memo to my boss. I told him,
'Let's do it! Let's do something for the common good of man! Did you know that
200 million people suffer from schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease of the
intestines or bladder - and hardly any of them are in the United States or
Europe? Another 120 million suffer from lymphatic filariasis, another parasitic
ailment that causes painful, disfiguring swelling. And what of malaria, river
blindness, AIDS? Darn, I said, we're a drug company. We can do something about
"Heck, it makes good business sense," I pointed out. "I reminded him that
countries plagued by bad health can't develop economically. After all,
need healthy workers to turn healthy profits. If we can improve life for these
people, we can build our own market, create our own demand. As people get
healthier and more prosperous, they will have the money and desire for more and
better drugs of all kinds - and here we are to supply them. Imagine, everyone
"A simple enough proposition," I told my down-at-the-heels acquaintance.
"Too simple," he said. "My boss scribbled me a note."
"Offered a few ideas of his own?"
"He spoke for the entire drug industry," my acquaintance muttered, adding, the
note said, "Too much trouble. Profit's not there. Let them die. "
"Hmm," I said. "Not very encouraging."
"He wrote one more thing: 'P.S. You're fired.' "
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