The NI Interview
Richard Swift chats with a Third World research scientist who has discovered a new malaria vaccine
and wants to make sure the benefits of his research reach those people who need it most.
Confidence in the beneficial effects of science is hard to come by these days. That is why Manuel Patarroyo is so refreshing. The Colombian research scientist’s conversation is peppered with phrases like ‘it’s perfectly understandable’ and ‘it’s very straightforward’ as he tries to explain things that seem anything but.
He has a disarmingly casual style when dealing with complex questions of scientific method. But this style has a harder edge when he talks about the power of the Northern scientific establishment. Patarroyo claims that his work and the efforts of his Third World colleagues are often treated with a condescension bordering on racism by Northern scientists. He points out that it took his Bogota laboratory four years to develop the world’s first safe and effective malaria vaccine, but six years to have it recognized. And while controversy lingers on there is now an increasing recognition that his new vaccine (the first against a parasite) could save over a million lives a year.
His explanation of the discovery seems simple enough: ‘All previous vaccines [for other diseases] have been biological products. We tackled the problem in a completely different manner. We identified the molecules of the microbe or the parasite and reproduced in the chemical laboratory the same chemical structure the microbe produces in order to survive. This is what we inject. The body makes a defense against this natural structure and when the microbe arrive the body’s defenses are already well-armed. That’s the malaria vaccine.’
A typically clear explanation. But there is one problem. ‘During the last 25 years,’ says Patarroyo, ‘pharmaceutical companies have invested, unsuccessfully, at least $500 million in trying to develop a malaria vaccine.’ It’s this heavy investment, he believes, that has fuelled the scepticism and often outright hostility that has greeted his discovery.
‘Most of my detractors are people who get support from the pharmaceutical companies and the Western scientific establishment. Once you realize who your critics are and who is behind them then things begin to fall into place.’
So far tests appear to support Patarroyo’s discovery: ‘The vaccine has been proven effective between 31 and 60 per cent of the time to people over one year old. This means that with only 31 per cent effectiveness you could protect 100 million people from malaria. With a yearly death toll of more than three million this could save a million lives. No vaccine has ever protected so many people.’
Patarroyo’s own research has been supported by the Colombian Government and his lab is renowned for its esprit de corps and egalitarian style of work. He believes that Third World science, though still in its infancy, is much more socially-oriented than its Northern counterpart. In the North, he says, ‘there is a tremendous waste of money on absolutely irrelevant issues. In the developing world science has to be problem-oriented. Yet the tendency is to look to the North rather than the South for solutions.’
Rather than profit from his discovery Patarroyo stunned his critics by turning the patent for his vaccine over to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – for free. Why? ‘Because millions of lives depend on it – the benefits should go to humankind, not to fill someone’s pockets. We must realize that if we don’t care for others and we continue our stupid ways of egoism and narcissism all of us are going to collapse – quickly, extremely quickly.’
But even after turning the patent over to the WHO there were hurdles. The organization planned to produce the vaccine in Europe and that meant escalating costs. ‘There were discussions with a major pharmaceutical company to manufacture the vaccine in Switzerland and that would have sent the price skyrocketing.’ Sticking to his principles Patarroyo insisted that the vaccine be produced in Colombia. ‘That way we can keep the price extremely low. People were saying the vaccine would cost $10 a dose; in our hands it will cost 40 cents.’
The big multinational drug companies may not invite Patarroyo to their conferences or cocktail parties but that doesn’t seem to faze the feisty scientist. ‘If I produced another vaccine I would do the same all over again.’ In fact, pharmaceutical companies now say that developing vaccines can never be profitable, a claim that makes Patarroyo bristle. ‘When you are producing billions of doses of vaccine even five cents means hundreds of millions of dollars. But it is not enough for them. These guys are always looking to make the highest profit from the smallest investment. That should not be the aim of institutions dedicated to public health.’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995