Gates Foundation Invests in Pharma: Conflict of Interest?

In March of this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $10 million in Liquidia Technologies, a biotechnology company focused on vaccine development. According to Jeff Raikes, the CEO of the Gates Foundation, this is a way to “tap into the private sector … [to] add to the work we are doing and leverage private flows of capital to advance our work in global health, global development and U.S. Education.”

To others, however, it looks as though the foundation is crossing the line between being a nonprofit, and being a profit-driven business. Although the $10 million represent a small fraction of the Gates Foundation’s current investments, they show the Foundation’s interests in furthering the already-powerful interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

An interview with Bill Gates in Forbes Magazine shows the extent of the Foundation’s involvement with Big Pharma. The Foundation has worked closely with, for example, Merck – maker of the controversial HPV vaccine – to advance vaccines throughout the world. This may seem like a charitable action, until one remembers that there are significant issues with the way vaccines are developed today (for example, the use of placebos that are themselves reactive in vaccine safety trials). The Foundation’s last research head, Tachi Yamada, formerly worked at GlaxoSmithKline; his replacement formerly ran clinical trials for Novartis.

Add this to Gates’ own views on the pharmaceutical industry and you begin to wonder exactly how altruistic his goals are. In the article, he argues that “pharma doing well is important for the world, so hopefully their discovery rate will go up.”

However, at the same time that he claims that vaccines “actually have more impact on health than all the new drugs,” he also inadvertently points out that not all the products created by pharmaceutical companies are as safe or effective as they say they are:

For Pfizer, for instance, a big bet on a Lipitor follow-up went down in flames when the drug turned out to increase, not decrease, the death rate. But now Pfizer is betting big on a vaccine, called Prevnar, against the pneumococcus bacteria. After Lipitor loses patent protection, Prevnar may well be the company’s top seller.

In the interview, Gates says nothing about ensuring that vaccines are safe. His focus seems to be more on keeping the research cycle going, regardless of cost:

The good news, to Gates’ mind, is that right now people are making money in the vaccine business. That means that more research is getting funded, and more innovation is happening.

“The rich world companies do more,” he says, “and that means the Chinese and Indian companies see that and they do more. You know, so it’s a pretty good virtuous cycle right now in terms of focus on vaccines. ”

Where this innovation leads? That’s just a secondary concern.

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