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How Is Fujifilm Helping In The Fight Against Ebola?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The international community is mobilizing on an unprecedented scale to try to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Speaking to the United Nations on Thursday, President Obama called the virus a threat to regional and global security, pledging additional supplies and personnel to the region. In addition, China, Great Britain and other countries are coordinating military and civilian teams to join the U.N. mission for Ebola emergency response. Last month, Japan offered a supply of the experimental drug, Avigan, an antiviral drug some believe could help treat Ebola symptoms. The company behind the offer, the maker of Avigan, is Fujifilm. Joshua Hunt writes about Japan for The New Yorker and looked into why a photography company is getting into the drug business.

JOSHUA HUNT: In Japan, where one quarter of the population is aged 65 years or older, it's one of the few growth industries really - is medicine and health. Fujifilm first got into patent medicines, over-the-counter medicines and cosmetics. They did that in 2006. And then two years later, they acquired Toyama Chemical, which is the pharmaceutical company that developed this drug Avigan.

RATH: Obviously in this instance, they're not going to make money by giving away drugs for free. Is there a bigger business strategy behind developing these antiviral drugs?

HUNT: You know, Japan is a country that really does actually care about its international image quite a lot. You know, Fujifilm can afford to give this drug away, even in pretty large doses, without incurring a significant loss. It's already been developed. It's already got a market scale. It's been produced for a mass-market and is sort of ready to go.

RATH: Well, given how digital photography and camera phones have really undercut the film and camera business, can you imagine a time when Fujifilm almost is totally out of the photography business and focusing more on these more profitable areas.

HUNT: You know, it's really difficult to imagine that kind of scenario. Beginning around 2000, Fujifilm saw its business in film producing go from representing about two-thirds of its profit to virtually none of them. But that doesn't mean they don't produce any kind of profit at all. Fujifilm markets a line of cameras called Instax, which work a bit like an old Polaroid. And the thing about that is Fujifilm's able to sell those cameras, which are becoming very very popular, very cheaply. And then they're able to get people hooked on the film, which is quite expensive actually.

RATH: You know, Joshua, this makes me think of another big Japanese company, Sony, where they've been losing money on their electronics. They only seem to make money on movies and locally in Japan on insurance. Is this going to be a technique that company's like Sony might say this is the way to go?

HUNT: You know, actually a lot of Japanese companies now are getting into the pharmaceutical market. Fujifilm did it sooner. And so they're going to benefit from that. But like I said, in a rapidly aging country like Japan, pharmaceuticals and healthcare in general is one of the few growth industries. So you'll see more and more companies moving into it.

RATH: Joshua Hunt writes for The New Yorker. Joshua, thanks very much.

HUNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.