On 1 March a revolutionary pharmaceutical product to treat malaria will be launched on the world markets. Why revolutionary? Because it is patent-free, it is not subject to intellectual property (IP) regimes, it is not-for-profit and anyone will be able to copy its formula. It’s called ASAQ and it is the result of an agreement between Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) – a not-for-profit research organisation created in 2003 by Médecins Sans Frontières – and the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis.
This is the first product manufactured by DNDi, and it represents MSF’s response to PhRMA, the powerful lobbying arm of the largest US pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies. The objective is to develop affordable cures for those ‘forgotten’ diseases that are not lucrative enough for the profit-making drug companies. Malaria is one of them. It is an infectious disease affecting some of the most vulnerable regions of the planet, where people do not have the economic resources to buy medicines at market value. Since the drug companies do not see profitable opportunities there, they have no incentive to develop life-saving medicines.
DNDi’s objective is to coordinate research into pharmaceutical products that can be developed and sold in developing countries at low cost, without IP restrictions. The launch of ASAQ – the first not-for-profit antimalarial drug – marks an entirely new way of conceptualising pharmaceutical products, similar to the way open source changed the way the software industry operates. No one owns the thinking behind a product, so anyone can take it, use it, improve it or – like in this case – save lives.
Update 02/03/07: See some further explanatory remarks by Jean-René Kiechel and Bernard Pecoul of DNDi on the Public Library of Science blog. The story has now been picked up by the NY Times, AP and Reuters.