Last month Gates-funded scientists announced that they had created the technology to manufacture artemisinic acid synthetically. Within five years, the cost of a lifesaving supply is expected to drop from $2.40 to 25 cents. Lead researcher Jay Keasling says it would not have been possible without a $43 million Gates grant. "I had companies call me and say, 'This is great, but we can't give you any money. We can't make a profit on this,'" he says.
I tend to be in the crowd that says profit is a great motivator to get companies to do bigger and better things, in turn raising the standards for most people and societies that intersect with those businesses. At first glance the quote above indicates that in this case profit was getting in the way of optimizing development of new drugs where it will do the most good – in the developing world fighting easy-to-cure diseases or conditions like dehydration that kill millions every year. But why didn't the Govts of those nations pony up for this effort? Since the pharmaceutical industry was NOT the beneficiary of this was it reasonable to expect them to bear the entire financial burden?
Since the $43 million from the Gates foundation basically started out as profits distributed from Microsoft to Bill Gates, who in turn funded this life saving effort, we need to be cautious about saying profits are the problem here since they were the solution here as well. Thus one could argue, and I think I would, that without a capitalistic infrastructure to create this wealth it's unlikely we'd see this development at all.
But most important is this question – how do we find the MOST effective mechanisms to create innovations on this scale? I think the new breed of corporate foundations are part of the answer because they apply many of the successful principles of business to development projects. Combine this growing force with tax and other incentives for companies that use their brainpower and expertise innovating for the broad social good.
And as for us everyday folks? What can we do? We can stop looking so narrowly at our own little niches, and instead look to the low hanging fruit solutions such as increased support for global health care. We can broaden our perspective to a global one and recognize that we have to make small sacrifices in an effort to save entire generations who are threatened with disease and starvation but for the lack of simple remedies. Even the most selfish person should realize that the satisfaction that comes from helping those in need is generally a much more profound experience than almost any other.