Abstract: Traditional Medicines Go Global: Business, “New” Drug Development and Health Inequalities

Julia Yongue


The focal point of this paper is a traditional kanpō (Chinese-style) medicine called shiun-kō, first popularized by Hanaoka Seishū (1760-1835) and still sold today as an ointment in traditional medicine shops all over Japan.  Because shiun-kō ointment was developed before the birth of a patent system, it has always been produced by many small firms, including Ōkusa Pharmaceutical Company, as a treatment for a wide variety of ailments ranging from minor burns to insect bites.  In 2013, a team of Japanese, Thai and Ethiopian researchers based mainly at Nagasaki University began comparative, double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, phase two clinical trials in Ethiopia to demonstrate shiun-kō ointment’s efficacy as a treatment for one NTD (neglected tropical disease), cutaneous leishmaniasis.

The purpose of this paper is to trace a long process beginning in Japan in the early postwar period, which made it possible to globalize a traditional medicine, shiun-kō ointment.  Sources used to write the paper include (1) interviews with researchers directly involved in the trial and representatives of Ōkusa Pharmaceutical Company; (2) trial data; (3) kanpō industry and global health documents, etc.  While highlighting some of the causes of inequalities in access to medicines in emerging economies, the paper will examine the current challenges of researchers, healthcare providers and “little pharma” in their quest for a new model of medicinal provision.