9. Developing Countries’ Medical Needs Unfulfilled by Big Pharma

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The world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have “failed to develop two-thirds of the 139 urgently needed treatments in developing countries,” the Guardian reported in November 2018. The Guardian’s coverage was based on a report by the Access to Medicine Foundation (AMF), a nonprofit organization that analyzes access to essential medicines such as infant vaccines for cholera and single-dose oral treatments for syphilis. An estimated two billion people globally lack access to urgently needed medicines.

The Access to Medicine Foundation’s 2018 report monitored the availability of medications produced by 20 of the largest pharmaceutical companies to lower- and middle-income countries. Of the 139 drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests identified as urgently needed by the World Health Organization (WHO), 91 have not been developed by any of the pharmaceutical firms tracked by the report. Sixteen of WHO’s prioritized diseases have “no projects at all,” the Guardian reported.

The Access to Medicine Foundation’s executive director, Jayasree K. Iyer, told the Guardian, “There have been massive improvements in global health in the past decades, with all major pharmaceutical companies taking action. To close the gaps that remain, a greater diversity of companies must get involved and stay engaged for the long haul.”

The report highlighted the need for pharmaceutical companies to provide better access to existing cancer treatments, reflecting the rising impact of cancer in low- and middle-income countries. Noting that “[p]rogress in global health is not inevitable,” the report found that in some countries mortality rates were stagnating or worsening. In 2017, for example, non-communicable diseases accounted for 73.4 percent of deaths, an increase of 22.7 percent since 2007.

Only four companies—GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, and Merck—are carrying out nearly two-thirds of the most urgently needed research and development projects, a “fragile” situation, according to Iyer. She explained to the Guardian that a “retreat by even one of these players would have a significant impact.”

The AMF’s report also highlighted 45 best and innovative practices that could “help raise the level of standard practice” and “achieve greater access to medicine.”

In an effort to mobilize investors to pressure pharmaceutical companies to make more medicines available in developing countries, the foundation presented the findings of its report to 82 global investors at events in London, New York, and Tokyo. As of April 2019, Access to Medicine reported that 90 major investors had pledged support for its research and signed its investor statement since the release of the 2018 Access to Medicine Index in November 2018.

With the exception of a November 2018 article by Reuters, news of the Access to Medicine Index’s findings appears to have gone unreported in the corporate press.

Julia Kollewe, “Big Pharma ‘Failing to Develop Urgent Drugs for Poorest Countries,’” The Guardian, November 20, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/20/big-pharma-who-failing-to-develop-urgent-drugs-for-poorest-countries.

Student Researcher: Brandon Grayson (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)