Company and charity will work together to provide medicines for the developing world

Pharma giant GSK is to partner the international charity Save the Children in a five year deal, which it says aims to help save the lives of one million children. The controversial compact offers a blueprint for how businesses and non-government organisations can work together, says GSK.

Flagship programmes will run in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, addressing vaccine coverage, nutrition and basic healthcare. GSK will donate at least £15 million over the five years.

Some commentators are criticising the move, saying it is simply a public relations exercise on GSK’s part. Other charities have mixed views: some welcome greater involvement of private industry, while others are more wary.

This arrangement is more risky for GSK than simply handing over cash, says Simon Wright, head of child survival at Save the Children. ‘This gives us a lot of power in the relationship and gives us a platform to challenge them, push them and even criticise them,’ he adds. He is hopeful that the compact will make GSK focus more on the social impact of its activities and show how the private sector can be harnessed for the good of some of the world’s poorest countries.

GSK says it is in the business of developing medicines and vaccines and that the expertise of the charity will enable them to get medicines to the people who need them. ‘It’s not for profit. But equally it’s not for loss either. Any profits will be reinvested back into R&D,’ says a spokesperson.

David Sogge, an independent researcher and expert on foreign aid, is surprised that Save the Children has got into bed with GSK. ‘This is a company that was found guilty of criminal misconduct in the US. Now, within 12 months of that judgement, it is walking down the aisle with a reputable British charity,’ he says, referring to GSK’s $3 billion fine for off-label marketing.

Sogge believes GSK desperately needs to link up with reputable charities to boost its image, and questions who is taking the lead. ‘It is apparent that the ultimate beneficiaries, African people, are not in the driving seat,’ he says.

The partners say they will work together, sharing expertise, resources and influence to tackle some of the leading causes of childhood death. They plan to formulate chlorhexidine – an antiseptic used in mouthwash – into a gel for cleaning umbilical cords stumps, and accelerate development of a child-friendly antibiotic for pneumonia. The charity will sit on a new R&D board at GSK and give advice on which medicines it should develop and what is needed, according to a GSK spokesperson.

Sogge worries that more charities will be tempted to enter such arrangements, as they increasingly come under pressure to reduce their expectations of government subsidies. ‘There is pressure from political leaders to find a way to get along with the corporate sector,’ he adds, owing to supposed efficiency gains . But he is confident that many charities will resist: ‘Oxfam isn’t going to do this; if it did, I would eat my hat.’

Oxfam said that it has worked to influence pharmaceutical companies such as GSK and will continue to do so. ‘Our primary interest is to ensure that companies and governments adopt policies that enhance access to affordable and appropriate medicines to meet global health needs. We don’t have any financial partnerships with companies in this sector,’ it said.

In a similar vein, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said this is not the sort of engagement it would undertake. ‘The proof of the success of this partnership will depend on whether it galvanises GSK to take the necessary steps to make changes to long-standing business practices that have undermined access to medicines across the developing world,’ Rohit Malpani, director of MSF’s access campaign, said in a statement.

Charting a middle course in the debate, the executive director of Aid for Africa, Barbara Alison Rose, said it would be a promising development if the two organisations can bring other organisations, communities, and local governments on board. ‘We are working throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where big ideas implemented from the top down often fail. Let’s hope this is not one of them.’