By Sy Mukherjee and Clifton Leaf
December 6, 2016

Just 90 minutes. That’s all it took for some two dozen global leaders to commit to the goal of providing 100 million children with modern frontline health care over the next several years.

This extraordinary panel, chaired by Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez—which was but one of eight such working groups gathered in Rome and Vatican City on Friday and Saturday for the FORTUNE + TIME Global Forum—included the chief executives of eight major corporations, the heads of some of the most prominent charitable organizations in both the developed and developing world, several transformational business consultants and other wise souls. And it was clear they were here for action, not just talk.

The session began, though, with talk: a powerful framing of the health care landscape in the world’s poorest countries by Gary Gottlieb, the CEO of Partners in Health, the influential NGO cofounded by Paul Farmer. Though any specific panelist comments in our 90-minute planning session were off-the-record, there is nothing secret about the crisis: Four hundred million people across the globe lack even bare-bones medical care.

Sub-Saharan Africa, a region of endemic poverty, has 11% of the world’s population, 24% of the world’s burden of disease, and less than 5% of its health workforce, said Gottlieb. Seven in 10 of the world’s poor live in remote or rural areas, where access to medical services is sharply limited or not available at all: 5 billion people can’t reach or afford essential surgical care, from emergency caesarian sections to cancer surgery. And even as maternal deaths have dropped dramatically over the past quarter century, an estimated 830 women across the world still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Such dismal statistics notwithstanding, certain low-cost strategies have worked to alleviate this burden, at least somewhat. In poor rural areas, said Raj Panjabi, who runs the nonprofit organization Last Mile Health—and who just won the $1 million TED Prize for his innovative work in Liberia—training local villagers to be community health care workers can offer more bang for the buck than almost any other intervention. These front-line workers are a big reason why the deadly 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia was contained. (Adam Lashinsky has a nice write-up of my interview with Panjabi here.)

Vaccines are also critical to reducing preventable childhood deaths from pneumonia and diarrheal disease, which continue to take a terrible toll in Africa. But there was widespread agreement among the working group’s on-the-ground experts—including Panjabi; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Nigerian finance minister who now chairs Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International; and Andrew Youn of the One Acre Fund—that only a more comprehensive health strategy would make any real dent in childhood mortality.

So the group committed to making that a reality—working with their Global Forum colleagues and others in the private and nonprofit sectors to fund a corps of 750,000 community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa and other underserved rural areas of the globe. In addition to providing basic, everyday health services, these frontline caregivers will focus on trying to stop the most pointless of childhood deaths—those from vaccine-preventable diseases, treatable infections, and starvation.

The commitment, delivered in writing to His Holiness Pope Francis this past weekend, is just the start, of course. I will follow-up in these pages with reports on the progress toward that goal. As we said in our Global Forum, the business community has an opportunity now to reaffirm its social compact with the world. This is a good first step.

More news below.

Clifton Leaf
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

The biotech patent trial of the century begins today. CRISPR, the newfangled gene-editing technology which has set off a biotech space race around the globe, is headed for a new trial today—and this one’s not in the clinic. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeal Board will hear preliminary arguments in a case pitting some of the nation’s biggest research institutions against each other to determine who holds the intellectual property rights to the groundbreaking tech. The case, called The Broad Institute Inc v. Regents of the University of California, Patent Interference No. 106,048, has MIT and Harvard-affiliated Broad Institute on one side and the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Vienna in Austria on the other. At issue is whether or not CRISPR-related patents issued to the Broad Institute in 2014 and later encompass the same invention that Berkeley researchers filed to patent in 2013. And the implications could be huge, determining millions of dollars in funding through licensing agreements the various research institutes have struck with biotech and pharma companies like Editas, Novartis, and others. (Fortune)

Juno finally gets some good news on its CAR-T cancer med. Juno has had a bumpy year when it comes to its experimental CAR-T cancer therapies, a new set of medications that involve turning killer immune T-cells to become cancer-fighting weapons. A number of patients in Juno’s clinical trials experienced deadly brain swelling from JCAR015, raising questions about the firm’s CAR-T franchise’s safety. But preliminary data for another drug candidate, JCAR017, unveiled Monday at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting holds a ray of hope for the biotech. The therapy produced a complete response in 12 out of 20 patients with a certain form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and enduring responses to treatment in patients with large B-cell lymphoma. Still, it appears that Juno’s clinical holds on JCAR015 will push it to, at best, third-to-market in the CAR-T space behind competitors Novartis and Kite.

Google Ventures founder Maris is raising $230 million for a new health care fund. Bill Maris, who founded Google Ventures (GV) and led the Silicon Valley VC giant to pour millions into next-gen health firms like Flatiron Health and Foundation Medicine during his tenure as CEO, is launching a new fund called “Section 32” and raising $230 million for the effort. It’s unclear exactly what kinds of companies the outfit will support, but given Maris’ prior interest in aging-related diseases and cancer, those may be the spaces to watch out for. (Fortune)


INDICATIONS

Novo Nordisk promises to limit U.S. drug price hikes. Outgoing CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen, chief executive of the Danish pharma and diabetes drug giant Novo Nordisk, was named the Harvard Business Review’s “best-performing” CEO in the world for the second time in a row this year. But the closing days of his tenure have been marred by a 40% plunge in market value in 2016, driven by intense pushback from U.S. payers and benefits managers on high drug prices. Now, Novo is promising to limit drug price increases to the single digits annually. “We recognize that people with diabetes are finding it harder to pay for their health care, including the medicines we make,” wrote Novo U.S. president Jakob Riis in a blog post. “As a company focused on improving the lives of people with diabetes, this is not acceptable.” Other big pharma CEOs like Allergan’s Brent Saunders, who launched a “social contract” with patients, have warned that if biopharma doesn’t keep prices in check on its own, more heavy handed regulations could be on the horizon. (Fortune)

The FDA’s new drugs chief (and agency critic) is retiring. Longtime Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official Dr. John Jenkins is retiring from his position as the Director of the Office of New Drugs, RAPS reports. Jenkins has been intimately involved in overseeing the drug approval process during a time of massive change at the agency, including a recent rush to green light a record number of drugs. But Jenkins has also criticized agency programs such as the “priority review vouchers” that can either expedite a drug candidate’s path to the market or be sold for tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars to other pharma companies. Jenkins served at the agency for 25 years. (RAPS)

Embattled AstraZeneca aces late-stage lung cancer trial. British pharma giant AstraZeneca has had some pipeline setbacks in recent years. But the firm got some good news today as its cancer medication Tagrisso continued to post impressive data, this time in a type of lung cancer in which patients have a mutation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). Tagrisso helped halt the progression of cancer in these patients by 5.7 more months compared to chemotherapy, and could become a second-in-line option for those with this specific mutation. (Endpoints)


THE BIG PICTURE

Paul Ryan pegs Obamacare repeal as priority number one. But what comes next? During an interview on 60 Minutes, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that repealing Obamacare would be the incoming GOP Congress’ number one priority. But the question is: what happens next? Ryan’s own ideas on health care reform have centered on block granting Medicaid and providing vouchers to Americans to help them buy insurance. But he also said during his latest interview that he favors keeping popular Obamacare provisions like the ban on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. And it’s unclear exactly how that would work while also rolling back the mandate for purchasing health coverage, or how long of a transition period there will be between Obamacare’s repeal and its replacement. (Fortune)

Trump’s corporate tax holiday could spur a pharma M&A boom. There’s a reason that health care stocks have been flying in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory—and it’s not just hope that the outrage over drug pricing will begin to diminish. Trump’s plans to help incentivize U.S. companies to repatriate their overseas cash by offering a steeply discounted tax rate could convince biopharma firms to cut more deals and acquire promising new assets. The hope behind the repatriation drive is that companies will invest more in employees and research; but some analysts believe that they may simply use the cash to plug holes in their drug pipeline via M&A. (Fortune)

Mumps outbreaks are the worst they’ve been in a decade. The consequences of the anti-vaccine movement continue to ripple across the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting that mumps cases nearly tripled this year compared to 2015. The hardest hit areas include college campuses where people are forced to live in close proximity to each other—a particularly concerning trend given that many schools actually have pretty strict immunization requirements for attendance. (Wall Street Journal)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

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