Love them or loathe them, pharmaceutical companies have an important role to play in disease control
In a developed country such as the UK, pharmaceutical companies play an important role in people’s health and wellbeing. But many people living in developing countries don’t have access to life-saving vaccines and drugs. They can’t afford to pay for them and neither can their governments.
Prices are high partly because of patent protection, which gives companies a monopoly for several years after a drug is approved for sale. Companies argue that this protection is needed so they can recoup the hundreds of millions of pounds needed to bring a new medicine to market.
What’s more, there is little incentive for profit-making drug firms to invest in research into diseases that are only prevalent in developing countries. The result is the ‘10–90 gap’ – only 10 per cent of health research is devoted to diseases that affect 90 per cent of the world’s population.
Not surprisingly, access to medicine has become a contentious issue. In the event of a flu pandemic, for example, will drugs like Tamiflu and an effective flu vaccine be available only to people who live in rich countries? Poor countries are worried and are seeking solutions to guarantee their supply.
In 2007, for example, Indonesia’s health minister complained that avian flu samples, given freely to the World Health Organization (WHO) for research purposes, would only benefit Western pharmaceutical companies. They would make money from vaccines that Indonesian people would not be able to access easily. The incident prompted WHO to organise a meeting about ‘Responsible Practices’ for sharing avian flu samples, where recommendations for the fair distribution of vaccine stockpiles were drawn up.
One option is to take advantage of trade rules that allow governments to take measures to protect public health. This means suspending patent rules so that medicines can be made cheaply locally.
Several new initiatives have been launched to address the failure of the ‘market’ to spur research into diseases of the developing world and to improve access to essential medicines. Hundreds of international public–private partnerships (PPPs) have been established, including several major global initiatives on communicable diseases. For example, the Medicines for Malaria Venture and Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative help private drug companies and public research institutions collaborate to speed up the development of new drugs.
In 2000 Gavi, a global vaccine alliance, was created as a public–private partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, WHO, UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) and the World Bank. It focused initially on increasing the uptake of vaccines for yellow fever, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae. Between 2011 and 2015 its mission is to accelerate the uptake and use of underused and new vaccines, including those for meningitis and rotavirus.
Another multi-country innovative financing mechanism is called UNITAID. This is an international drug purchase facility that uses funds from levies on air tickets to supply life-saving HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria drugs to people in need of them. In its first five years it committed $1.5 billion of funding to this cause.Lead image:
Esther Dyson/Flickr CC BY NC
- WHO: Indonesia to resume sharing H5N1 avian influenza virus samples following a WHO meeting in Jakarta
- Innovative partnerships for drug discovery against neglected diseases (2011)
- Information on Gavi’s vaccine goal
- UNITAID: UNITAID and the Clinton HIV/AIDS initiative announce new price reductions for key drugs