It took 30 years in the planning, 18 months since the last glitch forced an embarrassing deferral, and several strained hours this morning, but scientists at CERN this lunchtime re-created the conditions just after the Big Bang, without destroying the world.
Two proton beams smashed into each other at 7 TeV at around 1pm Central European Time in the Large Hadron Collider, and in less than 30 minutes they had been stabilised and experiments began. Now the hard working of studying and analysing the results begins.
Researching the FT’s first Combating Tuberculosis report in the last few weeks, I was a little disappointed by the lack of dissonance. HIV and increasingly malaria activists have been important advocates in raising the profile of those killer diseases, and in highlighting important issues of disagreement. The TB community, by contrast, still feels neglected, small and even overly consensual.
Apart from the obvious but difficult demands for more funding, and more effective drugs, diagnostics and vaccines, there are important short term and less costly actions that could be taken. Here are a few thoughts on what more needs to be done. Do reply to disagree or add to them!
Those with blurred vision can see plenty of parallels between Roche’s takeover of Genentech last year, and the on-going Novartis acquisition of Alcon, the eyecare company. A tighter focus highlights some intriguing differences.
Both purchasers are pharmaceutical groups keen to expand their businesses. Both are also based in Switzerland, while their targets are largely in the US. Both deals involve minority shareholders complaining they are being bought out too cheaply.
There again, Genentech was firmly anchored in the US. Alcon, despite historical roots in Texas and a New York quote, is legally a Swiss company, allowing Novartis to claim it has far greater rights to push through a deal regardless of minorities’ objections.
Still, there is one common link of sorts. Roche’s investment banking adviser on Genentech was the secretive US boutique Greenhill. And who has now emerged as adviser to the independent directors of Alcon?
Presumbly the competition between the two Swiss rivals would have made the bank’s likelihood of working for both predators small. But at least it has now been able to gain experience in minority shareholder disputes from both sides of a “big pharma” takeover – and both shores of the Atlantic.
It seems that Sanofi-Aventis, the French pharmaceutical group, is finally happy with its “succession planning”, after formally announcing plans for a new chairman to replace Jean-Francois Dehecq, the charismatic executive who built the company through dozens of mergers over three decades.
Mr Dehecq had previously modified the company’s statutes once to extend his mandatory retirement age, but this time – with his 70th birthday approaching and his own “dauphin” as chief executive replaced – he has relinquished the reins in favour of Serge Weinberg.
That maintains a separation of powers between the new French non-executive chairman and the German-Canadian chief executive, Chris Viehbacher, appointed last year: a rather more British than American (or traditionally French) approach to governance.
But Mr Weinberg, a product of the French elite political establishment and investment banking, is very different from his predecessor. Not only has he no experience in pharmaceuticals. He has a track record of resigning as head of from family-controlled businesses to which he has been appointed, at both the retailer and luxury goods group Pinault Printemps Redoute and the hotel business Accor.
That could suggest either stormy times ahead, or a victory for Mr Weinberg’s demand for a less family-dominated approach to capitalism, as Sanofi-Aventis bids adieu both to the strong influence of its founding chairman and the two largest shareholders which are a legacy of those past mergers – l’Oreal and Total.
Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, has added a new variant to its growing UK strategy of raising its profile on public health issues. First it “co-branded” with regulators to warn the public about the dangers of counterfeit drugs - many of which also happen to be internet-purchased fake versions of its own lucrative blockbusters.
Now it has launched a new awareness campaign around the importance of lowered cholesterol in conjunction with Heart UK, a British charity. A Pfizer-sponsored leaflet provides information on heart disease, including on its own product Lipitor, the world’s top-selling prescription medicine.
The company does not fall into the trap of preferentially pushing its own product, since it lays out simply in alphabetical order the details the entire class of relevant drugs, called statins. It just so happens that the “generic” prescribing name for Lipitor is atorvastatin, which puts it at the top of the list.
There again, in a sign of its independence, Heart UK’s own website lists the statins in a different order, beginning with simvastatin (Zocor), typically the National Health Service’s drug of first preference, if only because it is no longer patented and therefore available much more cheaply. than Lipitor
There is a some good news for “neglected diseases” in the latest research by the George Institute in Australia, to identify funding for research and development into illnesses traditionally receiving little support from pharmaceutical companies.
Nearly $3bn was spent last year in the search for new medicines in areas such as malaria, pneumonia and dengue. Drug companies are providing support, and the governments of two of the richer developing countries with many such illnesses – Brazil and India – are for the first time among the “top five” public sector funders, as they take growing responsibility for their domestic disease burden.
The bad news is that funding is stagnant and remains a tiny fraction of the efforts invested into other, richer world, diseases. But at least developing country governments and companies are increasingly taking up the slack. Over time, that may help them not only tackle problems at home but help develop local expertise in drug development that will challenge the dominance of western pharmaceutical companies in the future.
Good news for those attempting to extend antiretroviral treatment to the many millions of people with HIV in developing countries who need medicines but do not receive them.
An extensive study over six years in Uganda and Zimbabwe supported by the UK’s Medical Research Council in Africa suggests that up to a third more patients could be offered treatment, even given existing stretched domestic resources, thanks to a simple trade-off.
The Dart study, published in the latest issue of the Lancet, suggests that regular laboratory monitoring for toxic effects is costly and unnecessary, diverting funds that could instead be used to provide more drugs to patients at an earlier point in the development of the disease.
The researchers, led by Diana Gibb, argue CD4 testing, to measure the breakdown of the body’s immune response, should take place after two years’ treatment to determine whether to switch to more expensive “second-line” therapies.
Sometime companies dabbling with branding just try too hard. GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer announced a joint venture for all their HIV products last April, but only this week launched it – and announced the name: ViiV Healthcare.
The idea? It contains bits of the words Virus and HIV, sounds like life in French (the mother tongue of its new chief executive) and it’s a palindrome – handily reflecting its two corporate shareholders (though Pfizer only holds 15 per cent).
It may not roll off the tongue, but at least its creation reflects the new spirit of austerity. It was dreamed up in-house, with no expensive brand consultant brought in. It’s at least no worse than many such costly offerings.
Now all the company has to do is deliver new drugs.
The US Food & Drug Administration has recruited one of its own long-standing critics, hiring Peter Lurie from the watchdog Public Citizen as a policy adviser. That suggests a more enlightened approach from the regulator under Margaret Hamburg, the new commissioner named by President Barack Obama.But what is good for goverment is bad for independent scrutiny. Earlier this year, the agency hired Sidney Wolfe, another vocal critic from Public Citizen, which must now be reeling from the departures. Who will be left to provide commentary and outside analysis?
It all tastes less of poacher turned gamekeeper than of gamekeeper poaches critics.
Amny.com, New York’s free morning daily paper, brings intriguing killjoy advice to avoid swine flu, which provides an insight into new social practices among students.
Alongside kissing less and not sharing marijuana pipes and hookahs comes a warning against … “beer pong”. The game involves tossing a ping pong ball towards cups full of beer. The lucky “owner” of the cup where it lands drinks it down, along with whatever infections the ball may by then have gathered.
It seems one New York college has already emailed advice to desist, debunking claims that the alcohol would disinfect the flu. No judgmental advice on avoiding alcohol, at least!