You can’t put a price tag on Sovalid (unless it’s over $84K)

Gilead Sciences has developed a new drug (Sovaldi) that cures hepatitis C.

This is a huge deal: about 150 million people world wide are chronically infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV); according to the CDC 60-70% of people with chronic HCV will go on to develop chronic liver disease, 5-20% will develop cirrhosis over 20-30 years, and 1-5% will eventually die from the direct consequences of chronic infection (liver cancer or cirrhosis).

Sovaldi, which cures patients about 90% of the time with minimal side effects, could change all of this. John Castellani, President of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America says that this breakthrough is so valuable, that “you just can’t put a price tag on it.”

But of course, a price tag has been put on it: $84,000 for the 12-week course of treatment (or $1,000) per day.

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Is Finding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Worth 52,192 years of children’s lives?

[Note: This post is meant to be provocative and press a public policy question in the most thought-provoking way possible. Losing a loved one is among the most heart-wrenching experiences in a life time and my heart goes out to all those with loved ones on the flight waiting for answers. But one of the major points of this post is to highlight our tendency to spend more on identified lives not statistical ones for just these kinds of reasons and ask if it is justified.]

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is likely run to “Hundreds of Millions of Dollars” according to the most recent estimate from ABC News. This is based on extrapolation of the difficulties involved and the experience of searching for Air France 447 which cost 50 million USD. Let’s take a conservative estimate of 100 million USD to find the plane, probably on the low end. Let us put aside the possibility that even with that expenditure the plane will never be found, again an assumption that counts against the argument I will be making. This is 100 million dollars spent, roughly speaking, on “helping.” It is very unlikely that there are any survivors, so I don’t think this can reasonably be thought of as “life-saving” (I will assume it is not, but if it were  that wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the argument I will offer though it will require confronting the question of Should the Numbers Count for life saving?).

Instead the money is being spent (1) to satisfy the somewhat diffuse curiosity/grief of those who have watched this in the media, (2) to give answers to the very deep need for closure of the loved ones of those flying on these planes, and (3) to learn about what went wrong and potentially determine whether there is a systemic problem with these planes that might affect other planes.

All of those are worthy goals. But are they worth 100 million USD? In the category of “helping” or “life-saving” what else could we do with the money? Let me draw on one estimate mentioned by Ezra Klein in the WaPo and Don Taylor at the Incidental Economist from a paper by Tammy Tengs “Five Hundred Life Saving Interventions and Their Cost Effectiveness

I chose the cheapest intervention, influenza vaccines for children age 5+ which is estimated to cost $1,300/life year saved in 1993 dollars. I then updated that to 2013 dollars with a conversion calculator to generate a cost of 1915.89 USD per life year saved (it may also be that this intervention is now cheaper than it was at the time of Teng’s paper). I then divided 100 million dollars by that number to get my 52,192 life years saved for children estimate. That is fairly back of the envelope and there are lots of tweaks you would do to get a more exact figure, but it is close enough to make the point: Why are we spending so much on Malaysia Airlines search when we could be saving so many lives?

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Saturday, April 5th: Aid Grade! (from Harvard Effective Altruism)

A communication from Harvard Effective Altruism:

 

Hi altruists,

Saturday, April 5th is a big day for EA at Harvard: we have three different awesome events for you! Our guest for the day, flying up from DC for the occasion, will be Dr. Eva Vivalt, the founder of AidGrade. AidGrade helps figure out what works in international development by doing rigorous and engaging analyses of different interventions to find out their effects. They’re also looking for interns and full-time hires for this work, so please visit if you’re interested!

We’ll be having a talk on AidGrade’s research from 1-2pm, followed by a research-a-thon from 2-6 where we help AidGrade do some meta-analysis. The day will be topped off by a Boston-area effective altruism meetup at Clover–with another special guest, Jacob Trefethen of 80,000 Hours Cambridge UK, and many awesome local effective altruists.

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China Issues 2014-2020 Development Blueprint on Food and Nutrition

By Ching-Fu Lin

China’s highest executive organ, the State Council, put out the Food and Nutrition Development Outline 2014-2020 (the Outline) in February of 2014.  The Outline was jointly drafted by China’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and National Health and Family Planning Commission.  The Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Science and Technology, and National Development and Reform Commission also participated in its development.  Based on a review of China’s growth and problems in food and nutrition, the Outline sets a seven-year plan that highlights basic policy objectives.  The areas of focus are food supply systems, nutrition intake and balance (especially amongst population sub-groups), regulatory and surveillance mechanisms, industry development, research, and education.

The Outline lays out its “guiding strategy” that the government should regard the effective supply of food, balanced nutritional profile, and production-consumption coordination as its chief missions.  To execute these missions, the government identifies certain key products (quality agricultural products, convenient processed foods, and dairy and soy foods), key areas (poor, rural, and newly urbanized areas), and key population groups (the pregnant women and nursing mothers, infants and children, and the elderly) as starting points to promote better food and nutrition development patterns.  Such points are further elaborated in the document.  The guiding strategy ultimately aims to improve public health and a well-off society.

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New regulatory pathways and incentives for sustainable antibiotics: Recent European & US Initiatives

Please find attached a ppt presentation on “New regulatory pathways and incentives for sustainable antibiotics: Recent European & US Initiatives” given on March 7, 2014 at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.  The presentation was followed by a discussion moderated by US patent attorney Melissa Hunter-Ensor, Partner at Saul Ewing, Boston.

I started out by emphasizing increasing problems of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on a global level, providing new statistics and facts. This was followed by a discussion of main reasons for these alarming developments, such as inappropriate use in agriculture and medicine, insufficient precautions, lack of education, climate change, travel behavior, insufficient collaboration and funding of R&D, scientific complexities, and the problem that incentives provided by the traditional innovation system model often fail in the case of antibiotics.

Next the presentation focused on a variety of solution models that could be discussed to fight AMR. These include both conservational and preventive approaches comprising use limitations, increased public awareness, and better hygiene, but also reactive push & pull strategies, such as increased investments, new collaborative models for R&D in antibiotics, prizes, “sui generis” IP-related incentives, regulatory responses and new pathways for approval.

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Call for applications: Brocher Summer Academy 2014: Ethical Choices for DALYs and the Measurement of the Global Burden of Disease

Confirmed speakers: Christopher Murray (IHME)—Keynote, Matt Adler (Duke), Greg Bognar (La Trobe U), John Broome (Oxford), Dan Brock (Harvard), Richard Cookson (York U), Owen Cotton-Barratt (Oxford), David Evans (WHO), Marc Fleurbaey (Princeton U), Ned Hall (Harvard), Dan Hausman (U of Wisconsin, Madison), Elselijn Kingma (U of Eindhoven), Jeremy Lauer (WHO), Colin Mathers (WHO), Erik Nord (Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo), Ole Norheim (U of Bergen), Andreas Reis (WHO), Joshua Salomon (Harvard and IHME), Abha Saxena (WHO), Erik Schokkaert (KU Leuven), Drew Schroeder (Claremont McKenna), Alex Voorhoeve (LSE), James Woodward (U of Pittsburgh).

Organizers: Daniel Wikler (Harvard), Nir Eyal (Harvard), Samia Hurst (U of Geneva)

The biennial Summer Academy in the Ethics of Global Population Health is hosted by the Brocher Foundation on the shores of Lake Geneva June 9-13 2014, introducing faculty and advanced graduate students to population‐level bioethics. This fast‐developing academic field addresses ethical questions in population‐ and global health rather than ones in individual patient care.

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project is a systematic, scientific effort to quantify the comparative magnitude of health loss due to diseases, injuries, and risk factors. From its inception in the early 1990s, scientists and philosophers recognized that ethical and philosophical questions arise at every turn. For example, it must be decided whether each year in the lifespan is to count alike, and whether future deaths and disabilities should be given the same weight as those in the present. These choices and decisions matter: the share of disease burden due to myocardial infarction could vary as much as 400% depending on what position is adopted on two of the ethical choices described in the GBD 2010 report.  Continue reading

Capsule Endoscopy Instead of Colonoscopy? The FDA Approves the PillCam COLON

By Jonathan J. Darrow

In January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the PillCam COLON 2 as a minimally-invasive means of viewing the colon, a development that is sure to be welcomed by U.S. patients who currently undergo an estimated 14 million colonoscopies each year.  While the approval represents a major step forward, the PillCam is unlikely to supplant current procedures just yet.

The colon has traditionally been examined via optical colonoscopy, a procedure perceived by many to be uncomfortable and embarrassing that involves insertion through the rectum of a 5-6 foot long flexible tube as part of an examination that can take 30 to 60 minutes. Air must be pumped in through the rectum in a process called “insufflation.” Sedatives and pain medication are generally used to help relieve discomfort. In contrast, the PillCam COLON contains a power source, light source, and two tiny cameras encapsulated in an easy-to-swallow pill that produces no pain or even sensation as it moves through the colon. Reflecting the absence of discomfort, one report from a clinical researcher noted that a few patients have insisted on X-rays to confirm that the device had passed in their stool (FDA Consumer). The pill takes about 30,000 pictures before passing naturally from the body, which usually occurs before the end of its 10-hour battery life.

The safety record of capsule endoscopy, the category to which the PillCam COLON belongs, so far appears to compare favorably with the alternatives. Capsule endoscopy may be less likely to produce accidental colonic perforations or other serious complications, which occur in less than 1% of traditional colonoscopies despite the best efforts of the treating physician. Tears of the colon wall can in turn “rapidly progress to peritonitis and sepsis, carrying significant morbidity and mortality.” (Adam J. Hanson et al., Laparoscopic Repair of Colonoscopic Perforations: Indications and Guidelines, 11 J. Gastrointest. Surg. 655, 655 (2007)). Splenic injury or other serious complications also occur rarely with optical colonoscopies. Unlike “virtual colonoscopy,” which uses computed tomography (CT) to peer into the body, capsule endoscopy does not involve bombarding the body with radiation. A leading study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported no serious adverse events among 320 subjects given the PillCam COLON, and concluded that use of the device was “a safe method of visualizing the colonic mucosa through colon fluids without the need for sedation or insufflation.” Continue reading

Trials of HIV Treatment-as-Prevention: Ethics and Science. Friday, March 7

High hopes for overcoming the HIV epidemic rest to a large extent on HIV Treatment-as-Prevention (TasP). Large cluster-randomized controlled trials are currently under way to test the effectiveness of different TasP strategies in general populations in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, however, international antiretroviral treatment (ART) guidelines have already moved to definitions of ART eligibility including all – in the US guidelines – or nearly all – in the WHO guidelines – HIV-infected people. In this panel, we are bringing together the leaders of three TasP trials in sub-Saharan Africa, bioethicists, and public health researchers to debate the tension between the policy intentions expressed in these guidelines and the historic opportunity to learn whether TasP works or not. Please join us in considering different options to resolving this tension.

  • Till Bärnighausen, Harvard School of Public Health, and Wellcome Trust Africa Centre for Health and Population Science
  • Max Essex, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Deenan Pillay, Wellcome Trust Africa Centre for Health and Population Science, and University College London
  • Velephi Okello, Swaziland National AIDS Programme, Ministry of Health
  • Dan Wikler, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Nir Eyal, Harvard Medical School

 

Moderator: Megan Murray, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School

 

Friday, March 7th, 10am-12pm

Kresge G3, Harvard School of Public Health

Global Health Governance: Call for Submissions

Global Health Governance will be publishing a special issue on a proposed Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH) in December 2014. The proposal for an FCGH would create a new international framework, grounded in the international human right to health, that would support health at the national and global levels.

For this FCGH special issue, Global Health Governance invites submission of theoretical and empirical policy research articles that examine and analyze how the FCGH could improve health through improved governance and realization of the right to health. We have particular interest in articles on: Continue reading

International Aid, Public Health, and Corruption

My wonderful HLS colleague Matthew Stephenson has just launched the Global Anticorruption Blog (GAB). As it happens, his first two posts may be of interest to BOH readers, especially those  may be of interest to readers interested in international aid for public health projects, of the sort supported by the Gates Foundation.  The first post argues that the extent of corruption in these projects is much larger than the Gates Foundation and others acknowledge.  The second post contends that one reason for lowballing of corruption estimates is political: these projects depend substantially on public funding, and political support for health aid may be undercut by candid assessments of the extent of the corruption and fraud problems. Both the posts and the blog are well worth a read.

Kevin Outterson on the Search for New Antibiotics

Kevin Outterson appeared on NPR’s “Here & Now” to discuss the growing problem of antibiotic resistance and possible ways to incentivize development of new antibiotics. From the interview:

On the misuse of antibiotics

“We should think of this as a global resource that needs to be conserved and taken care of. So antibiotics should never be used inappropriately. In the country right now, we have something on the order of 23 million people who are getting antibiotics for ear aches. Most of those situations would resolve on their own in a couple of days. We also give antibiotics many times for people just because they have some sort of a common cold — it’s estimated 18 million prescriptions a year — doesn’t help anyone who has the common cold. It’s a complete waste.”

On the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

“It’s frightened people for more than a decade. You mentioned at the top the 23,000 Americans who are dying from resistant infections. The CDC said on top of that, there’s another 14,000 dying from a horrible disease, intestinal disease, called Clostridium difficile [C-diff] in the United States. Together, that’s larger than the number of people who die in this country each year from AIDS. And we’re not — as bad as things are now, the more troubling aspects, or what might happen in five or 10 years if some sort of a pathogen was resistant to everything we had got out to the population. It sounds like a Hollywood movie.”

You can listen to the full interview here.

Book Review published on SSRN

Three weeks ago I blogged about my recent review of  ”Pharmaceutical Innovation, Competition and Patent Law – a Trilateral Perspective” (Edward Elgar 2013). The full review, which is forthcoming in a spring issue of European Competition Law Review (Sweet Maxwell), is now available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2396804.

New paper on “Standardization, IPRs and Open Innovation in Synthetic Biology”

I am pleased to announce that we have today published the following paper:

Minssen, Timo and Wested, Jakob Blak, Standardization, IPRs and Open Innovation in Synthetic Biology (February 14, 2014). Available at SSRN.

This brief book contribution stems from a presentation given at the 2013 conference “Innovation, Competition, Collaboration” at Bucerius Law School, Hamburg, Germany. It is currently under review by Edward Elgar.  A longer journal-version will follow.

Abstract: 

An effective and just sharing of resources for innovation needs a supportive infrastructure. One such infrastructure of both historic and contemporary significance is the development of standards. Considering recent developments within the software and ICT industries, it seems fair to assume that the process of standardization may also have significant impact on the development and adoption of Synthetic Biology (SB). Within SB different standardization efforts have been made, but few have assumed dominance or authority. Standardization efforts within SB may differ within various technical areas, and also the basic processes of standard creation can be divided into various categories. The different technical areas and processes for standardization differ in their speed, handling of interests and ability to dodge possible IPR concerns.

Out of this notion arises i.a. the following questions: How comparable is engineering in SB to more traditional fields of engineering?; What type of standards have emerged and what bearing have IPRs on these?; and, How applicable are the approaches adopted by the standards-setting organizations in the information and communication technology (ICT) to biological standards? These and further legal issues related to IP, regulation, standardization, competition law & open innovation require a careful consideration of new user-generated models and solutions.

Before this background, our paper seeks to describe IP and standardization aspects of SB in order to discuss them in the context of the “open innovation” discourse. We concentrate on describing the technology and identifying areas of particular relevance. Ultimately we also sketch out open questions and potential solutions requiring further research. However, due to the limitation of this paper we do not aim to create elaborated theories or to propose solutions in more detail. Rather this paper, which will be complemented by more extensive follow-up studies, provides a first overview on the complex questions that we are currently dealing with.

To achieve this modest goal, section 1 commences with a brief introduction to the fascinating science of SB and a description of recent technological advances and applications. This will lead us to section 2, in which we will address standard setting efforts in SB, as well as the relevance and governance of various IPRs for specific SB standards. This provides the basis for section 3, in which we debate problematic issues and summarize our conclusions.

The bright side of antibiotic resistance

My parent’s generation grew up in fear of a nuclear apocalypse: the cold war was raging, team USA and team USSR were competing in a frightening arms race, and people were building bomb shelters in preparation for a nuclear end to the world. That’s like so 1950′s though; what’s hot now is the environmental apocalypse. We all know about rising water levels, and some doomsayers are even warning that enough methane is about to be released from the icecaps to cause the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs.

Me? I’m not too concerned about either of these scenarios, but it’s not because I’m much of an optimist. It’s because I’m convinced that bugs will kill most of us before we kill ourselves.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and it was being mass produced by World War II. This means it has effectively been around for at least 70 years, and it still works against a broad range of bacteria. Superb; 70 years is a hefty amount of time–enough for billions of doses to have been administered–and we’re still going strong.

But bacteria don’t care. They’re (still) here, they’re (always) evolving, get used to it.

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2/3 Petrie-Flom Health Law Workshop: Paper Now Available

Kevin Outterson will join us on Monday, February 3, for the first spring meeting of the Petrie-Flom Center’s Health Law Policy Workshop. He is a Professor of Law and Professor of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights at Boston University. Professor Outterson teaches health law and corporate law, and his interests include global pharmaceutical markets, finance and organization of health care systems, antimicrobial resistance, poverty tourism, and health disparities. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the faculty co-advisor to the American Journal of Law & Medicine, the immediate past chair of the Section on Law, Medicine & Health Care of the AALS, and a member of the Board of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics. Before teaching, Professor Outterson was a partner at two major U.S. law firms.

His research work focuses on the organization and finance of the health sector. Areas of specialization include global pharmaceutical markets, particularly antibiotics and other antimicrobials that can degrade in usefulness over time through resistance.

On Monday, Professor Outterson will discuss his paper “New Business Models for Sustainable Antiobiotics.” For more information on the Health Law Workshop, including meeting time and location, and to download the paper, please visit our website.

Infrastructure as a Social Determinant of Health in Developing Economies

By Matthew L Baum

Recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, D.S. Jones described the history of a dangerous new technology, the detrimental health effects of which had clinicians very worried. That technology was the automobile. While the public health concern spanned from inactivity to new maladies like “automobile knee”, by far the greatest concern was automobile accidents. Jones describes that in 1912, accident mortality was such a big problem that a New York coroner’s clerk said “’our streets are becoming as perilous as a battlefield’” and by 1957 the evaluation was not much better:  “Harvard researchers described accident mortality as a ‘mass disease of epidemic proportions’.” Interestingly, Jones highlights that doctors viewed this epidemic not merely as a governmental problem, but one in which there was a moral imperative that doctors themselves play a role in both studying what factors lead to car crashes and (more controversially) identifying high-risk drivers and thus contributing more directly to prevention.

Now in many developing economies across the globe, an interesting twist on this story is emerging: while modern cars have long existed in these locations, only very recently has there been a massive expansion of well-paved roads. And along with new and improved transport routes, new risks to public health.

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MONDAY: Conference, “Companies’ Global Health ‘Footprint’: Could Rating Help?”

Imagine a rating or accreditation system for companies’ “global health footprint.” Such a system would rigorously assess companies’ overall impact on human health, including the health of the world’s poorest and sickest populations, then disseminate this information in ways that users could readily understand and act upon. If successful, such a system would inform and enhance choice for ethically-minded corporate executives, board members, investors, business partners, workers, consumers, and regulators.

Bringing together leaders and experts in ethics, global health, business, law, communication, and health-related quality and safety certification, this conference will discuss dilemmas, share best practices, and seek to identify forms of global health impact monitoring and labeling that could be affordable, rigorous, reliable, sensitive to community needs, and user-friendly.

The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required. For more information, including the full conference agenda and registration links, please visit our website.

Organized by:
Nir Eyal, Associate Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine
Jennifer Miller, Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellow

Co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; the Division of Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School; the Harvard Global Health Institute; and the Petrie-Flom Center, with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

12/9 conference: “Companies’ Global Health ‘Footprint’: Could Rating Help?”

Imagine a rating or accreditation system for companies’ “global health footprint.” Such a system would rigorously assess companies’ overall impact on human health, including the health of the world’s poorest and sickest populations, then disseminate this information in ways that users could readily understand and act upon. If successful, such a system would inform and enhance choice for ethically-minded corporate executives, board members, investors, business partners, workers, consumers, and regulators.

Bringing together leaders and experts in ethics, global health, business, law, communication, and health-related quality and safety certification, this conference will discuss dilemmas, share best practices, and seek to identify forms of global health impact monitoring and labeling that could be affordable, rigorous, reliable, sensitive to community needs, and user-friendly.

The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required. For more information, including the full conference agenda and registration links, please visit our website.

Organized by:
Nir Eyal, Associate Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine
Jennifer Miller, Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellow

Co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; the Division of Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School; the Harvard Global Health Institute; and the Petrie-Flom Center, with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Only a Right to Health

By Nathaniel Counts

Human rights disaggregates otherwise related issues into separate rights.  We discuss rights to health, education, housing, association, etc., and, in countries where these rights are codified, we litigate each one separately in the courts.  We also know that each of these issues for which there is a corresponding right is, to some extent, a symptom of poverty.  In some cases it might not be possible to treat the symptoms without addressing the root cause.  For example, in 1966, the Coleman study on equality in education found that “[s]chools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his [or her] background and general social context.”  These findings have been contested, but it is likely that socioeconomic factors are a determinant of a child’s academic success, along with the educational experience itself.  If the socioeconomic background is the greater determinant, it may not make sense to use scarce government resources to fund school improvement rather than addressing poverty itself.  In a country with a right to education, school improvement could be litigated and potentially derail national efforts to address root causes.

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Video now available of panel on “Reproductive Rights around the Globe”

Video of the panel discussion “Reproductive Rights around the Globe,” held at Harvard Law School on November 7, is now available via the Petrie-Flom Center’s website. The panel — cosponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center; the Human Rights Program; and the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School; and the Harvard Global Health Institute – included legal experts on a variety of topics:

  • International trends in gamete donor identifiability v. anonymity – I. Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Faculty co-Director, Petrie-Flom Center
  • The politics of evidence and expertise in domestic and international abortion litigation – Aziza Ahmed, Associate Professor of Law, Northeastern University School of Law; Visiting Scholar, Petrie-Flom Center (Spring 2014)
  • Use of international fora, including courts and treaty bodies, to advance reproductive rights – Mindy Jane Roseman, Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School; Academic Director, Human Rights Program
Link to the video here.