Bill Gates has declared capitalism “flawed” because it channels more resources to curing minor ailments such as male baldness than to addressing the diseases that destroy millions of lives every year.
The billionaire founder of the software giant Microsoft, who is now one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists, told a conference in London last week that it was an indictment of the economic system that dominates most of the planet that more money is spent on research to reverse hair loss than on tackling scourges of the developing world such as malaria.
“Our priorities are tilted by marketplace imperatives,” he said at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Global Grand Challenges Summit.
“The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need, but it gets virtually no funding. If you are working on male baldness or other things you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria.”
Every year $2bn (£1.3m) is spent worldwide on surgical procedures for hair loss according to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery. By contrast, in 2010, just $547m was spent on malaria research according to the World Health Organisation. About $1bn was spent on the search for a cure for HIV/Aids.
Mr Gates, who is one of the world’s richest men with an estimated $67bn fortune, said governments should act to offset what he described as this “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach”. His comments will be interpreted as another blast at the large pharmaceutical companies, which have long been criticised for ploughing money into developing “lifestyle drugs” and neglecting research that could save the lives of the world’s poorest.
Mr Gates’ complaint is echoed by the Global Forum for Health Research, which estimates that only 10 per cent of worldwide expenditure on health research is devoted to the problems that afflict 90 per cent of the world’s population – the so-called 10/90 gap.
Malaria is estimated to have killed 660,000 people in 2010, most of them African children. About half of the world’s population is at risk. The transmission of the disease can be controlled by distributing cheap mosquito nets treated with insecticides. Research into a vaccine for the disease has so far failed to yield any results.