What Should We Make of a Pharma Giant's New Plans for Global Health Giving?

Big pharma doesn't have a great reputation in the United States, and for a lot of good reasons. Just the other day, Senator Bernie Sanders slammed Eli Lilly for "drug industry greed" after it moved to increase the price of a key diabetes drug. Lilly, like all its other industry peers, has paid giant penalties to settle government charges of breaking the law in its marketing practices. 

Of course, these companies have also been slammed globally for their pricing of life-saving drugs. 

All that said, in our work tracking corporate giving on global health, we see pharma companies doing some positive things. We've written in the past about Merck and Johnson & Johnson. Most recently, it's Lilly that drew our attention. 

The company recently announced a massive five-year investment to increase access to healthcare for people living in poor regions of the world. The goal: reach 30 million people by 2030. The effort will focus on Brazil, China, India, Kenya, Mexico, Russia and South Africa.

The plan, known as Lilly 30x30, is described by John Lechleiter, Lilly chairman, president, and CEO, as a “company-wide mandate to achieve a six-fold increase in the number of people we reach annually, outside of our traditional business.” The launch of 30x30 begins as a five-year, $90 million investment in the Lilly Global Health Partnership, with half of those funds coming from the company and the other half coming from the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation. That foundation gave out $26 million in a recent year. 

The initial effort will work to improve access and address gaps in healthcare for tuberculosis, diabetes, and cancer.

Lilly and Company is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.  Its philanthropic arm has a history of investing in projects to improve the health of people living in low- and middle-income countries around the world. The foundation regularly backs programs geared toward disease prevention and treatment of diabetes and tuberculosis, particularly strains of antibiotic resistant TB.

The 30x30 program represents a continuing commitment to the treatment and prevention of TB and diabetes in high-burden countries that often have limited healthcare resources. The initiative also adds cancer to its roster as a new “therapeutic area of focus.”

To those ends, the new $90 million investment in the Lilly Global Health Partnership includes a $15 million commitment to the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI). This renewed commitment extends Lilly’s existing eight-year partnership with IDRI to hasten the pace of early-stage drug discovery and the development of new medicines to treat TB.

Lilly also has a pretty solid history of backing projects aimed at the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The Lilly NCD Partnership launched in 2011 with a $30 million pledge over five years to “fight the rising burden of NCDs in emerging economies.” The NCD Partnership aids governments and other key stakeholders to improve diabetes prevention, treatment, and care. It focuses on low-income communities in Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Africa with limited healthcare resources.

The Global Health Partnership expands Lilly’s ongoing healthcare efforts, but now, it will do so through a single program rather than multiple initiatives.

In addition to its TB and diabetes work, Lilly has had an ongoing relationship with Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH) in Kenya since 2002. Over the years, it has donated over $60 million worth of pharmaceuticals to AMPATH, including those to treat diabetes, cancer and mental illness. Last year, Lilly gave AMPATH $1 million for the expansion of its Oncology Institute, one of only two cancer centers in Kenya.   

What’s interesting about Lilly in the global health space is that it’s one of the few funders zeroing in on non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cancer. There are a good number of funders focusing their global health efforts on communicable diseases like TB, polio, malaria, and HIV in poor countries around the world. But the list of those homing in on the prevention and treatment of NCDs like diabetes and cancer in least developed countries is a pretty short one.

That being said, momentum is starting to build for NCDs, albeit slowly.

For instance, earlier this year, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded its $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize to the Atlanta-based Task Force for Global Health. The task force is an international outfit working to ensure that every person in the world has the chance to live a healthy and productive life. The major focus of its work is neglected tropical diseases, which are largely defined as communicable diseases that fester in tropical and subtropical climates and mainly affect poor populations. And that’s not going to change significantly in the coming years. However, the task force did note that it would begin looking into and addressing “the growing epidemic of NCDs” in the near future.

Other funders paying attention to NCDs in poorer countries are the Medtronic Foundation, which has a long history of backing related projects in India, and the Abbot Fund, which is a regular supporter of the International Diabetes Federation.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, there are a good number of funders focusing their global health efforts on communicable diseases and NTDs, and for good reason. It’s the poor countries around the world that often carry the highest burdens. While NCDs like diabetes and heart disease are often associated with wealthy countries, the global increase in the number of NCD cases is becoming increasingly concerning. So much so that the WHO refers to the increase in cases as “the invisible epidemic.” In fact, NCDs have surpassed their infectious counterparts as the leading cause of death in least-developed countries and account for some 60 percent of all deaths around the world.

That’s not to say that big NTD funders like Gates, Good Ventures, and the Children’s Investment Fund should change strategies to focus NCDs. More than 1 billion people around the world suffer from such diseases as river blindness, Chagas, and lymphatic filariasis, which can all be incredibly horrific. But there is certainly room for more funders to jump in to fight the ever-rising tide of NCDs.