The ebola to come

A worldwide ebola pandemic is looking increasingly likely. This may not be the time to come over apocalyptic, but it probably is time to reflect on why the world is so susceptible to such diseases. And why the consequences could be so devastating to society – and also to the economy.

Physical health risks are the flip side to globalised travel. Just as computer viruses are facilitated by global electronic communications. And it is just one aspect of the fragility of our global systems. The features that make the modern world fun and convenient (provided you have the money, of course) are the same ones that make it so fragile.

What is the role of companies in this fragile world? Well no doubt one part is to plan for the risks to the business that it brings. Just as companies did for SARS and bird flu (and do for computer viruses, for that matter).

But perhaps a more important consequence should be that companies reflect on what part they have had to play in contributing to the fragility in the first place. Especially when it comes to arguing over who should pay for health protection measures.


Where does innovation come from?

Drug manufacturers think it comes from protecting profits. No doubt this leads to the development of drugs that can be patented – tweaking an existing drug usually does the trick with minimal effort. But the Indian courts have ruled that tweaking an existing drug does not create a new drug that merits a patent. And India is the capital of the world for cheap drugs.

So the drug companies will have to work on things that are really different. Innovation is needed in treatments for the diseases of the poor, such as TB and malaria and for ‘orphan drugs’ that have a small number of users.  And we will all need new antibiotics when the over-use of the current ones causes them to fail. The problem for the pharmaceutical companies is that these areas are not always profitable.

While there have been innovative attempts to develop treatments in some of these areas, many have been premised mainly on extending financial protection in some way. A more radical approach to health is needed, beyond patentable drugs.

In the end, real innovation comes from opening up, not from closing down and protecting.


Carry On Guzzling

The Lancet, the academic community, the government and the World Health Organisation all agree that obesity is a serious threat. Interestingly, so does the food industry.

So, as a nation, should we:

a) just take individual responsibility and eat less? (Requires a strong and persistent public education campaign. People may also need a little help from the authorities: Japan has legal waistline standards.)

b) change the formulation of processed foods, so that we can eat as much as we like without getting fat? Or change the labelling of products, so we know how much food we are about to eat? (This is the voluntary approach favoured by industry. It shows little sign of reversing obesity trends.)

c) increase the price of food so that we buy and eat less of it? (This is likely to happen in Hungary. The UK government has come out against it.)

The correct answer is probably: all of the above. If we were serious about it, we would undoubtedly pursue action on all fronts. What’s more, it is likely to save everyone money – except perhaps for those food companies that refused to re-formulate their products.

So why has Public Health Minister Anne Milton ruled out any action by government? She seems content with new labelling practices by industry when it’s waistlines, not tag lines that matter.

Could this have anything to do with connections between government and industry?


Junk Accountability?

What is the Department of Health for? For promoting health of course. But exactly whose health is being promoted?

The objectives of the Department of Health are these:

  • Better health and well-being for all: helping people stay healthy and well; empowering people to live independently; and tackling health inequalities.
  • Better care for all: the best possible health and social care that offers safe and effective care, when and where people need it; and empowering people in their choices.
  • Better value for all: delivering affordable, efficient and sustainable services; contributing to the wider economy and the nation.

That all seems fine. But it seems that the very last phrase (the one about’ contributing to the economy’) may have got the upper hand. Does the new coalition government  want to promote the well-being of companies over that of people? In the composition of the new ‘responsibility deal networks’ which are meant to look after a range of health issues such as obesity, alcohol and fast food issues, companies have pride of place.

On top of that guarantees seem to have already  been given that neither price nor legislation will be used to change behaviour.

The question must be whether there will be any change of behaviour at all.


Co-moderator of Nanotechnology Regulation Conference

I shall be running sessions at the 5th Nanoregulation Conference at Rapperswil, Switzerland on 25th and 26th November 2009.

What is it about? In the light of the European Parliament calling for adaptations of the regulatory framework regarding manufactured nanomaterials, what will be the strategy of the European Commission? Which nano-specific information is indispensable for authorities and consumers? Which instruments for communication and transfer of nano-specific information along the value chain are available?

Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that as yet, society does not know quite how to handle. This is not surprising, as perfectly ordinary substances when ground down to a nanometer scale acquire properties that can be terrifying – for good or ill.


Seeing justice done – a NICE decision

A court has decided to uphold NICE’s analysis of the non-cost-effectiveness of four drugs for the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  There are issues about whether this is the correct judgment and whether the analysis takes a wide enough account of social and other non-commercial costs.

But there is also an issue about transparency.  Two in fact.  NICE will not reveal the detail of its calculations and methodology in reaching its decision.  And because of the lack of transparency of the legal process itself, it is not yet clear whether the court actually examined the details either!


Lovesick teens turn to junkfood

Junk food makes us ill – but of course only when we eat too much of it. Companies which make junk food routinely say that their product is fine “as part of a healthy diet”. But that rather begs the question of how much junk food you can eat and still have a healthy diet. Maybe that is something which we all just have to negotriate in our own way. But what about all that advertising which links feeling good with bad food?