Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: How Collaborative Efforts Have Made Malaria Eradication a Possibility Again - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: How Collaborative Efforts Have Made Malaria Eradication a Possibility Again

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: How Collaborative Efforts Have Made Malaria Eradication a Possibility Again

Mosquitoes have long claimed title as the world’s most dangerous animal1, and for good reason. Malaria, one of the many infectious diseases spread through the bites of mosquitoes, has caused an estimated half of all human deaths since the Stone Age.2 Today, nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria3, with an overwhelming majority of this risk concentrated in a handful of sub-Saharan countries.4 Children under the age of five continue to be the most vulnerable, accounting for 61% (266,000) of all malaria deaths worldwide in 2017.5

Current strategies for malaria prevention include indoor residual spraying and long-lasting insecticidal nets.6 While these have been effective methods of prevention, more than 30 countries have reported resistance to the insecticide on which these tools rely.7 Despite this increasingly desperate need for a vaccine, one massive hurdle has stalled developments in malaria vaccination for decades: money.8 The cost of commercial drug research and development has exploded in recent years.9 An oft-cited study by The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development claims the average cost of developing a new drug between 1995 and 2007 was $2.6 billion.10 Patent protection plays a vital role in recovering this substantial investment that drug research and development requires. Patents allow pharmaceutical manufacturers to recoup as much of their investment as possible during the patent term before competitors can create and market a generic version at a fraction of the cost.11

While successful blockbuster drugs can generate more than a billion dollars a year during their patent term12, the cost of developing drugs for diseases exclusive to developing countries is often prohibitive. Because patients in need of medication for these “Type III diseases” generally cannot afford the high prices pharmaceutical companies charge to offset their substantial investments13, market exclusivity resulting from a patent does not incentivize pharmaceutical companies to invest in those drugs. “To put it bluntly: inventing drugs for poor people just isn’t profitable.”14

To combat this enigma, those interested in creating a malaria vaccine abandoned the traditional drug discovery model and opted for a more open-source approach.15 Foundations such as the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) have created partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and relied on contributions from government and philanthropic entities, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation16, to “de-risk” a collaborate endeavor and separate the R&D expenses from the drug price.17 Further, MMV has distributed hundreds of “Malaria Boxes,” free of charge, to nearly 200 academic research groups in 30 countries.18 The only condition for receiving one of these boxes, which contained 400 diverse compounds known to have antimalarial activity19, was to publish all findings in the public domain.20

Patent protection for promising antimalarial products from MMV collaborations is sought in “large economies” to control the quality of manufacture and protect against an incidental application of the compound.21 However, patent protection does not extend to malaria-endemic countries.22 This strategic approach to intellectual property allows foundations such as MMV to attract industry partners and guard against the misuse of innovation while ensuring those in need receive affordable medication.23

On September 13, 2019, Kenya joined Ghana and Malawi as the third country to launch a pilot program for the malaria vaccine known at RTS,S.24 RTS,S was developed through a collaboration between the non-profit organization PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI)25 and pharmaceutical giant GlaskoSmithKline (GSK) and is the first and only vaccine to significantly reduce malaria in children.26 While these pilot programs are an exciting step toward the eradication of malaria, it raises questions about the outlook for other Type III diseases. The recent progress in malaria vaccination resulted from unprecedented cooperation in drug research and a tremendous amount of public and philanthropic funding. Many lesser known but similarly deadly Type III diseases27 might not receive the level of attention, and therefore might not receive the level of funding, that seems to be required for significant progress. While open-source drug discovery may help to alleviate some of the hurdles in developing drugs for poverty-associated diseases, funding will likely continue to be the biggest barrier in neglected-disease research.28

  1. Lydia Ramsey, The World’s Deadliest Animal Isn’t a Shark or Even a Human, Bus. Insider (Apr. 25, 2017), []

  2. Gaia Vince, How the Malaria Vaccine Could Change World Health, BBC: Future Now (May 23, 2019), []

  3. Augustina Frimpong et al., Novel Strategies for Malaria Vaccine Design, 9 Frontiers in Immunology 1 (Nov. 2018).

  4. World Health Org., World Malaria Report 2018 xii (2018).

  5. Id.

  6. Frimpong et al., supra note 3, at 1.

  7. Id. at 2.

  8. Sylvie Fonteilles-Drabek et al., The Role of Intellectual Property in the Battle Against Malaria, WIPO Magazine (Oct. 2016), []

  9. Id.

  10. The Price of Failure, The Economist: Pharmaceuticals (Nov. 27, 2014), []

  11. When a generic version of Lipitor, the leading cholesterol-lowering drug, was released, the price of Lipitor fell by 95%. Michael Rosenblatt, The Real Cost of “High-Priced” Drugs, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Nov. 17, 2014),

  12. Thomson Reuters, Drugs to Watch 2016 2 (2016).

  13. Mark Peplow, Open-Source Drug Discovery Takes Aim at Malaria and Neglected Diseases, Chemical & Engineering news (Jan. 29, 2019),

  14. Id.

  15. Fonteilles-Drabek et al., supra note 8.

  16. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made significant contributions to several not-for-profit organizations that encourage a collaborative effort to eradicate malaria, including MMV, PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), and Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC). Gates Foundation Commits $258.3 Million for Malaria Research and Development, Gates Foundation (Oct. 2005), []

  17. Fonteilles-Drabek et al., supra note 8.

  18. Peplow, supra note 13.

  19. About the Malaria Box, Medicines for Malaria Venture, (last visited Sept. 17, 2019). []

  20. Peplow, supra note 13.

  21. Fonteilles-Drabek et al., supra note 8.

  22. Id.

  23. Id. This intellectual property strategy is similar to Volvo’s open patent on the three-point seatbelt, which allowed any car manufacturer to use the significantly improved safety feature in their designs for free. See Patrick George, Volvo Gave Away Their Most Important Invention to Save Lives, Jalopnik (Aug. 8, 2013),

  24. Malaria Vaccine Launched in Kenya: Kenya Joins Ghana and Malawi to Roll Out Landmark Vaccine in Pilot Introduction, World Health Org.: Africa (Sept. 13, 2019), []

  25. Like MMV, MVI is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. See supra note 24.

  26. See supra note WHO.

  27. One billion people are at risk of contracting leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection transmitted by sandflies; human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), transmitted by the tsetse fly, is endemic in 36 African countries with 65 million people at risk of being infected; Chagas Disease is endemic in 21 Latin American countries and causes more deaths in this region than any other parasite-borne disease, including malaria. Diseases & Projects, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, (last visited Sept. 17, 2019) [].

  28. Peplow, supra note 13.

Megan Mahoney

Megan Mahoney is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She holds a B.S. in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.