Q&A: Striking a balance between patients and profit

Rows of vaccine vials. Photo by: Sanofi Pasteur / CC BY-NC-ND

In the past few years, there has been a significant injection of business engagement in the global development sector. The launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 — and the multi-trillion-dollar financing gap — ignited a spark under efforts to link business with development outcomes. Since then, there has been a steady rollout of public-private partnerships pushing for progress in areas such as health and climate change.

A few years on, it’s time to take the pulse of exactly how business is transforming development.

“In global health, the private sector often brings with it financial capital, but also logistics, infrastructure, technical know-how, and data mining expertise, among others,” said Jenny Lei Ravelo, Devex senior reporter. “If we want to attain universal health coverage under the SDGs, you cannot keep the private sector out of the picture. It just won’t work.”

Ravelo — who is based in Manila and focuses on global health and humanitarian aid trends in the Asia-Pacific region — will be sitting down at Devex World on June 12 in Washington, D.C., with business and global health luminaries to check in on the progress made so far. She’ll be asking what partnership models are working and dig into why.

Ahead of this month’s event, Ravelo explains why she’ll be probing organizations and businesses about the balance between profit and patient focus.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the current state of play in terms of the role of business in development, particularly in improving global health?

The private sector has always played a key role in development. It’s the perception about the private sector that has changed in recent years, and their visibility in engaging more in development-focused efforts. Increasingly, you’ll find businesses at the same table as international organizations and governments discussing issues such as immunization or addressing neglected diseases.

Also, in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of social enterprises entering this space. Their business models are founded on the idea that it’s not just about making profits.

How are new business models and new initiatives around health creating real business opportunities and lasting change?

There are vast partnerships taking place across sectors. In health, there’s the example of governments, donors, and philanthropic organizations tapping into the supply-chain infrastructure and logistics expertise of a global company to deliver vaccines, medicines, and other medical supplies in hard-to-reach places or improve the medicine distribution system in countries.

You also find organizations that have been created to address challenges in public health. For example, the Medicines Patent Pool negotiates the licensing of drugs for HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis with big pharmaceutical companies. By doing so, it allows generic manufacturers to produce the drugs, bring down pricing, and improving access to these drugs. What some in the global health community want to see now is for MPP to expand the list of drugs to cover other diseases, perhaps taking guidance from the World Health Organization’s essential medicines list.

A more recent example is the creation of CEPI, short for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. It’s a multistakeholder platform involving governments, pharmaceutical companies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust. Essentially, what they do is inject financing to vaccine development and research to speed up their development, but with a focus on potentially pandemic diseases. Currently, their focus is on three diseases: MERS, Lassa fever, and Nipah virus.

A key part of a business model like CEPI’s is ensuring affordability of the products once developed.

What are the key issues around the idea of business’ engagement in health and development work today that you'll be digging into at Devex World?

While the private sector is a key player in bringing health outcomes, there’s still a lot of wariness among governments and NGOs in partnering with them, given their profit-driven business model. And let’s face it, there are some businesses that really do have questionable practices or are engaged in unhealthy endeavors.

An international organization working in health is likely to take precautions in partnering with businesses, but we won’t dwell so much on the negative. What we want to do is look at the models of partnerships that work, why they work, what made them work. We also want to bring the conversation to the level of the patient. How do you engage businesses to work with a patient-centered approach rather than a profit-centered approach?


But let me be clear: These discussions are not limited to sessions. You have a wide range of stakeholders who will be there with whom you can engage, discuss, and maybe come away with new inspiration for a new project, or better yet, a new partnership.

Whose perspectives will you be drawing from at Devex World?

We have a great panel of global health executives who’ve engaged the private sector to bring better health outcomes for populations. Just to give you a sense of our powerhouse cast, we have Dr. Mark Dybul, who has extensive knowledge of global health and from different perspectives having worked in government, in the development sector as former head of The Global Fund, and now in academia. We also have a prominent government official credited for efforts in bringing significant milestones in the health of her country’s population; an executive who was able to negotiate lower pricing for cancer drugs; and another executive who has both a medical and marketing background.

Devex World is on June 12, 2018, at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C., Find out more here and note that this unique event will reach full capacity.

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