By: Rebecca A. Meseroll, Ph.D.
Global climate change accord reached
After years of discussion and two weeks of intensive negotiations, representatives from 195 nations reached an historic accord on climate change on December 12th in Paris. A major goal of the agreement is to maintain global temperatures at or below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, primarily by transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives. As the earth has already warmed approximately 1°C since pre-industrial times, it is crucial that action is taken to reverse the trend. Although individual nations’ current climate pledges are not expected to fully meet this goal, many scientists see the accord as a means of gaining momentum to enact policies to prevent the terrible outcomes that rising global temperatures would deliver.
Of course, the agreement does require actual follow-through by individual governments in order to be effective. The plan will utilize a system of global peer pressure to encourage nations to meet their goals by requiring that countries meet every five years beginning in 2023 to report on progress. In the United States, for example, the fear of international shame may not be enough to force the hand of climate change skeptics in Congress who would likely vote against future legislation aimed at decreasing global temperatures. Despite the imperfections of the agreement, the successful passage of this pact has led to a great deal of excitement, especially in the scientific community, and should provide a huge step forward in worldwide cooperation for improving environmental health. (Coral Davenport, New York Times; Jeff Tollefson & Kenneth R. Weiss, Nature)
AIDS research funding
NIH ends fixed funding for AIDS research
Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it will not continue allocating a set 10% of its budget to HIV/AIDS research, a policy which has been in effect since the early 1990s. HIV and AIDS treatments have vastly improved in recent years and mortality rates are down, thus research into the disease is not seen as being such a pressing issue as it once was. Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH, agrees with patient groups and Congressional representatives who have found it problematic that AIDS gets proportionally so much more research funding than other diseases that take a greater toll on the population and healthcare spending. In addition to cutting the reservation of 10% of its overall budget, another $65 million, which comprises about 2% of the HIV/AIDS grants portfolio, will be freed up for new priorities in HIV/AIDS research. The NIH will focus on preventing HIV, via vaccine development or other treatments, and finding a cure for the disease, instead of funding projects more tangentially related to HIV infection. The current funding reduction and refocusing are expected to take place in the next fiscal year. Although the HIV/AIDS research community is generally supportive of ensuring the highest priority research is funded, there is some concern that HIV/AIDS research funding will be passed over for increases if the NIH budget is raised in the future. (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)
Drug prices and regulation
Shkreli plans to spike price of Chagas disease drug
Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager and current CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, rose to infamy earlier this year when his company acquired the rights to the decades-old toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim and then abruptly raised its price per pill from $13.50 to $750. After public outcry, he pledged to lower his proposed price raise, but then withdrew that pledge, and he has recently said he should have raised the price of Daraprim even higher. Shkreli is now poised to spike the price of another old drug, benznidazole, which treats Chagas disease, a parasitic infection most commonly encountered in Central and South America that can persist for many years and eventually cause cardiac and gastrointestinal trouble. Last month, Shkreli acquired the biotechnology company KaloBios Pharmaceuticals and is currently awaiting FDA approval for KaloBios to be the sole distributor of benznidazole in the United States. If KaloBios receives approval, Shkreli says he will raise the price of a course of treatment to between $60,000 and $100,000. The CDC estimates that approximately 300,000 people in the United States have Chagas disease, although the vast majority of them are undiagnosed. It is unclear how much of a market KaloBios would actually have for benznidazole, since the diagnosis rate is so low, but even if there is no market, the company could potentially sell the rights to the drug to turn a quick profit. KaloBios is facing competition for FDA approval from Elea Laboratories, an Argentine company that currently supplies benznidazole. These practices by Shkreli call into question whether current regulations aimed at increasing research and development of drugs for neglected diseases are actually effective or whether they are more frequently being abused as money-making schemes. If the latter is true, new regulations may need to be put into place to prevent gaming of the system. (Andrew Pollack, New York Times)
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