Neglected tropical diseases - from sleeping sickness to river blindness - got unaccustomed attention Monday when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a global group of drug firms and government agencies announced a new partnership to knock out 17 diseases that harm 1.4 billion people in developing countries.
The hope is to eliminate five neglected diseases and control five more by 2020, and then figure out the other seven, all from the list of neglected diseases kept by the World Health Organization, a partner in Monday's announcement.
"It's great to have commitment, but it's better to have a deadline," said GlaxoSmithKline chief executive officer Andrew Witty, who was cochair of the roundtable with Bill Gates in London. "We're committed to holding ourselves accountable with a scorecard so people can keep track of what we're doing." (The website is www.unitingtocombatntds.org)
Johnson & Johnson's Bill Weldon, Merck's Kenneth Frazier, Novartis' Joseph Jimenez, and Sanofi's Christopher Viehbacher were among the chiefs of 13 pharmaceutical companies on stage at the Royal College of Physicians in London.
And Gates was the reason, or perhaps, the galvanizing force, as WHO director-general Margaret Chan said near the end of the news conference.
"I've never seen so many competitors working together," Chan said. "Bill, what did you say in that round table?"
The Microsoft cofounder has spent some of his billions trying to rid the world of diseases through the foundation he cochairs with his wife. The foundation pledged $750 million last week to fight infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Monday's amount was $363 million over five years toward neglected tropical diseases with governments and charities promising to give another $785 million.
Gates noted that some elements of Monday's announcement have been in place for years. Drug companies have donated pills. Governments have helped. Charities have chipped in.
"What is unique about today is that all of the actors have stepped forward in a dramatic way," Gates said. "If we make these milestones, we'll just call them 'tropical diseases.' "
The U.S. government's Agency for International Development (USAID), Britain's Department for International Development, and the United Arab Emirates' Children's Investment Fund Foundation were also part of the effort, with funding or logistics promises.
The challenges will be great, even if the cast of characters cooperates.
The five diseases in the hope-to-eliminate category are guinea worm, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis (also known as elephantiasis), blinding trachoma, and sleeping sickness.
The five diseases that the group hopes to gain control over by 2020 are schistosomiasis, river blindness, soil-transmitted helminthes (intestinal worms), Chagas disease, and visceral leishmaniasis.
Companies did not place a dollar amount on their contributions but they did vow to donate more existing drugs, start research, or provide chemical formulas. For example, Pfizer, which has Philadelphia-area operations, will contribute azithromycin, used to fight blinding trachoma.
But execution and consistent follow-through are needed beyond the fancy announcements webcast around the globe. And that also applies to the governments of the nations in which these diseases are rampant.
"We're not really talking about neglected diseases, but diseases of neglected people," said Caroline Anstey, a managing director at the World Bank.