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British Drugmaker Funds Research On Chronic Disease In Africa

Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, says that better control of infectious diseases in Africa is allowing chronic diseases to come to the surface.
Mark Lennihan
Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, says that better control of infectious diseases in Africa is allowing chronic diseases to come to the surface.

One of the world's largest drugmakers says it will invest more than $200 million in Africa over the next five years in a push for better treatment of noncommunicable diseases there.

GlaxoSmithKline said the funding would be focused on sub-Saharan Africa, where the company already employs about 1,500 people and operates three factories. The money would go toward building five more factories and funding of research and development focused on the region.

A centerpiece of the expansion is a new lab focused on noncommunicable illnesses in Africa based at a company research center in Stevenage, England, north of London.

The British hub will help researchers from Africa and elsewhere collaborate with each other and with Glaxo scientists on projects involving noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.

Andrew Witty, CEO of Glaxo tells Shots, that the lab may be the most valuable part of the project in the long run. "It's really the first time that I think anybody is really moving the whole focus on African disease on from infectious disease into noncommunicable diseases," Witty says.

Why the shift? As one looks at the leading-edge countries in Africa, Witty says, there's evidence of widespread vaccination and the beginning of good management of HIV.

"We're starting to see some sense of control over the infectious disease burden, which has always existed in Africa and dominated," he says. "What you then start to see is other diseases, which have essentially been hidden, if you will, by the cloud of infectious disease, come more to the surface."

A 2013 report from the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that Africa is making significant progress against infectious diseases. Measles has dropped to 33rd place as a cause of death on the continent from the sixth position in 2010.

Africa is the region where disease conditions are changing the fastest, the World Bank's Tim Evans told Shots last September. "We are seeing [infectious disease] rates coming down from very, very high levels," he said. "They had a long way to descend. And they still have a fair way to go."

Glaxo's Witty says the company sees a growing business opportunity in the area. "I would say we're on the bridge from aid to trade here," Witty says. "I can't guarantee success, but that shouldn't stop us from being ambitious."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.