Gates Foundation again hires top drug company exec for global health mission

Trevor Mundel

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has again hired a leading pharmaceutical executive to run its biggest philanthropic mission, global health.

I posted on the rumor yesterday, but today the Seattle philanthropy confirmed that it has hired Trevor Mundel, head of global development for Novartis based in Basel, Switzerland. Novartis is the third-largest drug maker in the world and does a lot of work on vaccines.

“We are very pleased that Dr. Mundel has agreed to lead our global health program,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the foundation. “He brings tremendous scientific and medical credentials, in the lab and in the clinic.  We look forward to working with him to help improve the health of people in the world’s poorest countries.”

“Dr. Mundel is an outstanding choice for our global health work,” said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the foundation. “He has a passion for science, and has worked for many years with an array of partners to improve health outcomes for people around the world.”

Trevor Mundel

Mundel succeeds Tachi Yamada, who came from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to run the Gates Foundation global health program.

Yamada, as I reported February when he announced plans to step down, did a lot to restore order in the global health progam and smooth some hackles raised by his predecessor, Rick Klausner. Klausner also did a lot — largely increasing the Gates Foundation’s rapport with the scientific establishment. But there were reportedly management concerns and other problems, and some hard feelings when he left.

Yamada has since decided to become a venture capitalist, the same post-Gates route taken by Klausner.

Mundel, who has an impressive resume with worldwide experience and educational pedigree, will, the philanthropy says:

“Lead the foundation’s efforts to develop and deliver drugs, vaccines, and other tools to fight developing-world diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and take the world closer to the goal of polio eradication. He will oversee the foundation’s global health grant portfolio, which includes more than $14.7 billion in grants to date.”

I wondered if drug development and delivery has become the primary emphasis of the Gates Foundation’s global health mission? The foundation has always liked simple, effective interventions — especially vaccines. So perhaps this trend (of two) doesn’t signify a change in direction.

But is it the primary direction the global health community is headed? Next week, in New York City, the UN will be holding a big meeting that is, basically, aimed at re-setting the global health agenda. Called the High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases, some see it as an argument for a more comprehensive, less disease-targeting approach to improving health in poor countries.

Drug companies are almost totally focused on fighting diseases in a targeted, singular way. Drug company executives focus on making drugs or vaccines, not on coordinating health systems or achieving health policy changes – which is what many say is now needed most in global health.

I asked Gates Foundation spokesman Chris Williams why they selected Mundel and if this indicated the philanthropy was shifting to even more of a focus on product development and leaving the (messier?) issues of systems change and policy to others. Williams sent me this reply:

Industry and the foundation are natural partners for ensuring that health solutions for neglected and preventable diseases are created and delivered to the world’s poorest. Product development partnerships are a significant focus for us, as we believe that science and technology lead to some of the most leveraged interventions in global health. Dr. Mundel’s industry experience makes him well-suited to manage our investments.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.